This month I have the privilege of talking to Sam J. Miller about his story “The Beasts We Want to Be” – a story close to my own heart, as it is set in revolution-era Russia. As a speaker and sometime translator of Russian, and a dilettante scholar of Soviet history and ideology (one of the topics of my master’s dissertation at the University of London) I was immediately drawn to the story, and I’m very happy to share our conversation about it with you here at Better Dreaming.
RN: First, Sam, thank you so much for agreeing to do this, and supporting this still fledgling effort to deepen the discourse in science fiction. This story opens so many avenues for exploration. Let’s jump right in, with the protagonist’s self-description:
“I was an illiterate bloodthirsty street urchin, the son of steel workers who starved to death in the famine of 1910. Plucked out of the orphanage by the Ministry of Human Engineering, I was reconditioned into a species of man they said was “slightly smarter than a dog but just as vicious.”
I love this self-description of the story’s protagonist, Nikolai. It seems to me to be, first, a deadly accurate description of who many of the shock troops of the Bolshevik revolution were – the ones, at least, who had the credentials necessary to survive the initial rounds of terror and purges. I also wonder, though, if there isn’t a reference implied here to Bulgakov’s novella “A Dog’s Heart” (the translation I prefer of that title).
Like that story, this one is a dark piece of satire (it is more than satire, I am not trying to encapsulate it, as sometimes is done, with that word.) Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration for this story, and what drew you to the place-time of 1924 and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia?
SJM: I wasn’t conscious of the “Dog’s Heart” influence but I am sure it’s there - I was a Russian Lit major, after all, and got my Bulgakov with my alma mater’s milk, as it were.
I wrote this story at Clarion, and more than one of my classmates came away from the first draft convinced that the narrator was in fact a dog. The line you quoted was originally “I was reconditioned into a slightly-smarter sort of dog, still just as vicious.” But this is science fiction, after all, and as per your next question - you gotta be careful with your metaphors, as they’ll often be taken literally. So, yeah - the doggish narrative DNA asserted itself. It required careful domestication.
I’ve always been obsessed with Soviet history. Like many angry punk rock teenagers, I became a communist (my father’s struggling butcher shop got put out of business when Wal-Mart came to town, so I got a crash course in the monstrousness of global capitalism and corporate supremacy), and like many angry lefties I wanted very badly to believe that all the terrible things I heard about the USSR was Western imperialist propaganda. Then I went to college and studied Soviet history, and, yup, just as full of atrocity and horror as they’d said, if not more so because the West rarely knew the full extent of the horror. But I remain sympathetic to the goal of radically transforming society to make life better for exploited people, and the classical-tragedy scope of the horrific consequences of that effort.
All of that is just crammed into my brain, percolating away, and it pops up from time to time in my fiction - my story “Black as the Sea,” published in Arts & Letters in 2011, is about the Odessa Pogrom as seen by a child Isaak Babel; I wrote a whole novel nobody wanted, where instead of a Space Race the USSR and the USA fight a Robot Race, which the Soviets win, which leads to America’s collapse and Russia’s rise to unchallenged global supremacy.
But honestly, the root of this story is much more mundane. I was at Clarion, my head exploding every five minutes with awesome new insights and inspiration from my classmates and teachers, and I was out for a run with my headphones on - I firmly believe the universe sends me important messages all the time via the Shuffle function on my music player - and one of my favorite songs came on - “Abel,” by the National. It’s about the acute pain of living on after you’ve lost the person who made you want to be a better person. That’s Nikolai’s tragedy - Apolek was his hero, his inspiration; Apolek helped him see how full of anger and hate and ignorance he still was, how far he had to go, and he came to depend upon him help getting there. But what do you do when that person is gone? The whole story bloomed around that before I was finished with my run.
RN: Later in the story, we have this description of the use of the “Pavlov boxes” which is one of the central SFnal concepts of the story:
“‘Even now, they’re building tens of thousands of Boxes, all over the country. Putting boys of all ages into them. Trying millions of different reconditioning regimens. Creating all kinds of monsters. All kinds of terrifying offshoots. Volkov thinks he can fix it with more reconditioning, so whenever it starts to happen to one of his men, he throws them back into a Box for several days. It makes the symptoms go away, but only for a very little while, and then they come back much worse.’”
‘Okay,’ I said, because I didn’t know what to do or think or say. It had never occurred to me to doubt the Boxes, or reconditioning, or the whole grand Soviet plan of human perfectibility.”
What I love about this passage is the way it illustrates so fundamentally Delany’s conceptualization of what set SF apart linguistically from other fiction. As Delaney argues, it is only in SF (I am paraphrasing) that the sentence “Her world exploded” can be taken as having either a literal or a metaphysical / psychological meaning (or, I would argue, both).
One of the many things I love about “The Beasts We Want to Be” is the way it literalizes, with the Pavlov boxes (a wonderful play on Skinner boxes, by the way) the Soviet effort to “remake” Homo sapiens into Homo sovieticus – and the often (always?) monstrous results of that effort. It uses physical science as a metaphor for what was essentially a mass psychological / sociological experiment reinforced by terror. Can you speak a bit to what kinds of possibilities this literalization sets up for you as an author?
SJM: Mostly, it’s just fun. That’s what I love about writing science fiction - you can put a whole lot of crazy shit on the page, and have fun with it, and hopefully readers will have fun too.
I mean, that very particular kind of fun that involves dissecting historical atrocities.
Maybe fun’s not the right word.
As for this fundamental Soviet question of whether human nature can be re-shaped, I am really caught between (a) wanting very badly to believe that human nature as we now know it is a conditioned response to history’s brutality, and that we can do better, that we are doing better, that struggle and hard work and activism are steadily broadening the scope of our humanity, that it’s possible to learn to co-exist with nature and not mercilessly exploit it, we’re not existentially fucked, and (b) knowing from the study of history that the idea of humanity needing improvement/radical abrupt transformation is a dangerous one that was marshalled by many repressive regimes on the far right and far left.
So this story, and the Pavlov Boxes, is one of many of my attempts to grapple those two conflicting beliefs/knowledges.
RN: Another description of the operation of the Pavlov boxes that I thought was very powerful was this one:
“No two men emerged the same from any one reconditioning regimen. People were too complex. Their own experiences conditioned them to respond to stimuli so differently.”
This reminds me of a basic precept of general systems theory: the individual is not passive, not a blank slate – the individual extracts message from noise and responds according to their own system’s internal organization. Because the internal organization of two individuals will never be alike – because, fundamentally, every individual is a distinct, non-repeatable system, an arrangement of elements and experience constructed in reinforcing feedback loops -- their reaction to input is not predictable.
This is fundamentally what sets general systems theory up against the behaviorist / Pavlovian stimulus / response models that prevailed at that time both in the Soviet Union and in the United States, and that persist in psychological and sociological models of human minds and human culture. And this idea of the unique cognitive system of every individual seems key to understanding the story.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you view the dialectic of individual vs. state here? And perhaps how you view the relationship between individual and societal pressures, more broadly?
SJM: Jeez, Ray. These questions are intense! But good intense.
I think that all interventions aside, from the State and from society, we’re all bizarre unique deranged animals alone in the void with our wild savage selves.
And! Also! we’re inextricably tied to others and the earth, bound in a billion different ways by history, DNA, karma, nation, neighborhood (that’s why I have the line “Our lives are not our own” from Cloud Atlas tattooed on my arm). We can no more exist in isolation from nature and from each other than we can exist in isolation from oxygen.
Who we are is malleable, shaped by nature, nurture, the state, pop culture. Our friends. Our enemies. Great art. But how we respond to those things is also shaped by… those things.
Which is why the reason somebody gives a book a one-star review on Goodreads is the exact same reason somebody else will give it a five-star review.
I don’t have good answers. Attempts by the state to re-shape humanity will have limited success, I think. But attempts by humanity to re-shape the state can succeed, and have in the past, and must in the future.
RN: You’re right. I guess I often feel like interview questions are a bit boilerplate, so if there’s a trademark to this Better Dreaming series, it must be the fact that I love intense conversation and am looking for a way to bring that to the page. I want to really draw out, to the fullest extent I can, your thought process. Thank you for engaging with me.
What you say at the end of your response above is a good place to return to: the idea of how malleable the individual is, how contingent. I’ve said elsewhere that I believe the individual, in the “Cartesian” sense, is a sham. One reason for this is because what we call the “individual” is embedded in what I have come to call “place-time” -- a time and a physical space – but also a constructed, ideological space -- which both constrains and allows action. This combination of time, place, and culture is what constructs our “reality.”
Lived reality’s structures are built up of ideology and traditions. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They largely define the niche we exist in, a world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”
And that, to me, is at the core of “place-time” -- I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in this place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.
One of the problems your story appears to address is what I consider one of the central tragedies of Soviet (and not only Soviet, but all) history: The actions people take are largely driven by the force of history and the way that force, often expressed through the state, corrupts and twists individuality. But revenge, and justice, are meted out at the level of the individual: Zinaida kills Apolek because he killed her husband. But did he? Was he responsible for that action? Or was it the state that was responsible? Or some combination of the two?
Likewise, the choice this inspires in Nikolai is an individual one. But in his case, the choice has consequences both at the level of the state and at the level of the lives of tens of thousands of individual people. And so I’ll ask you a question I’ve asked multiple authors in this series: to what degree do you believe human beings are free? You say above that “attempts by humanity to re-shape the state can succeed, and have in the past, and must in the future.” What, in your opinion, has driven that change? This is something M.L. Clark and I discussed at some length, but I feel it’s fundamental, so I’d love to get your take.
I don’t talk about this much because it’s easy to come across as a moody teenager or someone who just discovered A Philosophy Book, but I embrace and celebrate the idea that humans do not have free will.
Every decision we make, from what flavor ice cream cone to get to whether or not we have kids, get married, etc., is conditioned by tens of thousands of factors we can’t control. The beliefs and habits our parents and teachers and heroes and favorite movies instilled in us. Legacies of oppression. Quirks of history. Bizarre genetics we barely understand (there’s actually a gene for whether broccoli tastes bitter or not!).
So I don’t think we “make decisions” so much as we obey who we are. We’re not computers, but we’ve been programmed. Even when we stop and say “wait, why am I making this decision, I always get chocolate ice cream, can I choose otherwise, let me get pistachio,” that is itself a piece of programming, a contrarian subroutine or an algorithm of attempting to assert free will.
As for what’s driven successful attempts to re-shape society, I’d say - activism. Coordinated, sustained organizing that brings together different communities impacted by a problem to fight through a multitude of strategies (direct action! civil disobedience! calls to elected officials! a billion boring but crucial meetings!) to shift the conversation to the point where previously-impossible solutions are inevitable. And that includes great storytelling - replacing an old and toxic narrative (“Human beings can be property; it’s in the Bible” or “Of course children should work in factories”) with a new and better one.
After fifteen years as a community organizer I did lose something crucial, which is part of why I got of the way of the younger radder activists and organizers coming up.
RN: We could go on and on about all of this, and so many other elements packed into the story, but I think this is a good concept to wind up with: the idea that it is not reliance on the free will of individual, or despair at the lack thereof, that we should concentrate on – but rather, collective action. I like that idea of bringing together communities, and especially the communities directly impacted by the problem. That’s a great quote above, “. . . to shift the conversation to the point where previously-impossible solutions are inevitable.” If there is a positive trajectory to history (and I think that remains to be seen) it must be that one – the idea that we can move, collectively, to a tipping point where previously impossible solutions become inevitable.
Thank you so much, Sam, for taking the time to talk to me about your work.
SM: Thanks for having me, Ray!! It's not every day I get to say stuff like "an algorithm of attempting to assert free will." And it was great to get to talk about "The Beasts We Want To Be" with you - I'm fond of that story, even if it feels like a very different writer wrote it, almost ten years ago now! Here's to the hope we can drink coffee and talk fiction and free will in real life someday soon.
This month I have the honor of conversing with R.S.A. Garcia about her novelette “The Sun from Both Sides” – a great story that provides plenty to talk about.
RN: First of all, thank you for agreeing to take part in Better Dreaming and to support this fledgling effort in extended conversation about science fiction. I really enjoyed reading “The Sun from Both Sides”. There is plenty to talk about, so let’s get started! First of all, readers should know there will be spoilers: we’re having a conversation about a whole story, not just half of one. I highly recommend you begin by reading the story itself here.
First of all, I’d like to talk about structure. The story is divided into two halves. In the first narrative arc, a woman saves the man she loves. In the second half of the story, the man she saved saves her. I should note I am reducing the complexity here, but it seems we can divide the tale this way, and that the “agency” of the story divides this way pretty well. Instead of one protagonist, we have two. Or, I might say, instead of two protagonists, we have one joint protagonist: a couple in love with one another. And I love how the first line of the story gives us a clear guide to what is to come: “Once, a woman loved a man, and a man loved a woman.” Can you tell us a bit about this structure, and why you chose it, and how it relates, for you, to the content and theme of the story you wanted to tell?
RSAG: Before I begin, I want to thank you for inviting me to converse with you, for reading my story and for giving writers a chance to do something we love to do - talk about our stories!
I have always loved structure as part of storytelling; as a tool that both reflects the nature of what the story is telling us, and a clue to the audience about where we've been, what was important there, and where we're headed. You are quite insightful in your comments because what came to me in Sun first was this couple that had the kind of love you rarely see. An unselfish melding of two lives that prioritized acceptance and partnership. I saw their quiet lives and wondered what had led them to create this wonderful bubble together, and I knew immediately that it had to do with his past and her protectiveness of him, of anyone she loves really.
I initially wondered if I shouldn't publish the first part of the story as a standalone, then write and publish the second half. But when my sister, my brilliant beta reader, got her hands on the beginning, she told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn't finished. That gave me confidence that the right step was to write the rest out immediately. I've played with three act structure, five act structure and a host of others in my writing, and here I wanted to try for two acts, and two protagonists. On reflection, that helped mirror the tale I wanted to tell of how love can bring individual souls together, how it changes us and how that change can ripple outward into the world, and inward into our lives, ripples on pond-water, heading out and in at the same time--Eva and Dee, Dee and Alexandar, Eva and Sister and on and on.
RN: I want to pick up on what you said above about “An unselfish melding of two lives that prioritized acceptance and partnership.” I’d like to dig into that a little deeper with you if you don’t mind. It seems to me to be an uncommon view of love, in a world saturated with media-driven romantic ideas of seduction, adventure, and shallow drama as the primary features of love. Can you talk a bit more about this, and why this quiet, firm love is the love you chose to write about here? What made you want to write about this under-represented type of love?
I also noticed, when searching the title of your story, that it is drawn from a David Viscott quote. I wasn’t familiar with David Viscott – he’s certainly a complex figure, a pop psychiatrist who offered simple solutions but whose own life was messy and complicated. The full quote is: “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides”. Can you talk a little bit about the quote, and why you chose it as the title of this story? I have to say, I think it is a perfect fit, and I feel as if I understand the story better now that I have seen the full quote – kudos to you for an excellent title selection.
RSAG: I'm a tremendous fan of romance in all its forms, but I've had some time to see the many ways in which only certain types of love were spoken about fondly, over and over again. Sometimes it's about who gets to be seen as romantic and worthy of love - I had no people of color in my library's romance offerings as a teenager, and no idea there was a world of gender and sexuality beyond the binary for a long time. And I was always struck by the way the media ignores love between older people. There's also the idea that romantic love can only be sexy or beautiful or intimate in certain ways. I adore steamy, passionate, sexual love, but growing up, the most stable couple in my life was my grandparents. They'd been married so long, they slept in separate beds. But they had this way of sitting together, completely silent, for ages, and then my grandmother - the garrulous type - would say something, like they'd been talking, and my grandfather - the strong, silent type - would smile and nod and they'd go back to their silent conversation. The night before I started writing Sun, I read an incredible polyamorous romance by Sierra Simone that reminded me of the beauty of that kind of accepting, loving partnership, and I woke from a dream struck with the image of a woman waiting in a forest for her husband to return.
And now I have a confession. Titling stories is a difficult thing for most writers, and with me, because I write without an outline - just a beginning and ending firm in my mind, and some key points in the middle. I often don't even know what the story is until my final edit, when I have spotted and hopefully refined all the themes, ideas etc. Most times, I don't title my story before it's done; the title then usually comes to me on its own. This was one of the few times Google was my friend, as I couldn't come up with anything. I wanted to find something that captured the feeling of a love that didn't judge or possess, but also remained sexual and intimate because I felt that was what was at the core of Eva and Didecus and the story, and part of what I wanted to talk about. That we are our best selves when we care for each other without expectation of anything but caring in return. That being old doesn't mean we can't be more in love than ever. When I came across the quote, I knew immediately it was the one. You are quite right in that when I used that quote, it was a huge pointer to what in the story mattered most.
RN: Another fun thing about this project has been hearing about how different writers begin a story – some with elaborate outlines, others with more of a sketch, some with only the beginning, or a title. No matter which way, the best stories always feel, to me, as if they were “meant to be” as if they could be nothing else other than the end state reached. I definitely see that with “The Sun from Both Sides”, and while you may have found the title late in the work, it is a perfect fit, and I can imagine no other.
I have to agree! That's how they feel to me too, and as a writer, I'm always searching for that elusive feeling when polishing. I want that sense of rightness when I read over the final product. Like every word is sunk in the earth and mortared into its rightful place.
We talked above about the two distinct halves of the story, but there is another bifurcation in this story worth mentioning. While being filled to the brim with high-concept SFnal elements, there is a strong flavor of fantasy to the story – the structure of Valencian society, for example, is filled with fantasy allusions and at the same time fully science fictional. And the story starts out in a very fairy-tale style, but moves quickly toward technological space-opera style action. Can you talk a little about the science fiction and fantasy genres, what they mean to you, and how you used (or did not use) the interplay between them in “The Sun from Both Sides”?
RSAG: I've always identified myself as a speculative fiction author precisely because I love all elements of speculative fiction. I write mostly in scifi and fantasy, or a blend of both, but I love horror and the paranormal, mystery and romance, all the so-called commercial genres really. For me, they are all part of storytelling, and that is what I love most about writing. I was raised on that peculiarly West Indian diet of British/Commonwealth literary classics, black post-colonial and post-modern fiction, mythology and legends from every part of the globe, but especially from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe because my own society had some of its roots in those lands. My ancestors included the enslaved and indentured who survived unimaginable brutality, discrimination and hate with the help of song and dance, story and spirituality. We passed our tales on through oral histories when we were forbidden to write or read. I had a visceral connection to material that speaks of spirituality, magic, the unknown. I could imagine my ancestors would have known all three, in positive and negative forms, both in their homelands and in the Caribbean nations that became their new homes.
But I was also a child of those ancestors who fought to survive so that their children could have better lives. I was drawn to the idea of building a better future, through the fascinating stories I read, and by virtue of having had a grandmother who was the child of a woman born on the plantation that enslaved her mother; a grandmother that embraced all progress and education as the way out of poverty and passed that on to my mother. When I imagine futures, they cannot be clinical technological spaces for me. They spring from communities, histories, spiritualities, connections to the past through to the future. Even though slavery took their names and identities, my ancestors arts, stories, societies, and those of their homelands, are a throughline to me that I continue in my work.
To me, the separation of scifi and fantasy is a line I like to blur because they feel like two sides of a conversation about 'what if'. I firmly believe in that old adage that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic. But most of all, I believe that what we think of as 'magic' is probably rules of the universe we do not yet understand. For me, science is our way to explain how the universe and nature works, and technology is our attempt to recreate or control it. But that means the natural universe already does many things our technology cannot, and that science cannot explain. Birds fly when we must build machines. Black holes and gamma rays exist. A frog can change its sex if the survival of its species is in danger. Yet we believe 'magic' is illogical, and science is all knowing. I like reading and writing stories that give magic and science the logic and mystery of the natural universe, that lift up the connection to nature and ground science in humility.
RN: I really like that idea of lifting up the connection to nature and grounding science in humility. In a world where we face a large degree of ignorant reactions against science as well as an ignorant, bowdlerized understanding of what science is, I think that kind of humility is deeply needed.
RSAG: Perhaps I’m naïve, but I feel like many scientists and people who work in science and technology are so much more humble and endlessly curious than the deeply incurious and cynical people who make money off their discoveries. I think the more you learn about the universe, the more you must be awed by the commensurate depth of our ignorance of how it all works. I think all the time about how astronauts speak of understanding how precious this planet is, how small and fragile, when they see the Earth from space. When I write, I try to pass a little of that on to the reader. A little of the awe of looking at this vast, complex, always changing universe that can be treacherous and unconcerned with our tiny goals, but that remains endlessly beautiful. Forever our home and giver of our very lives.
RN: I don’t think that’s naïve at all. It is my experience that nearly all of the great scientists ground their work in humility and boundless curiosity: That seems to me to be what is at the core of true science (as opposed to its popularized version, or its applied / exploited version). And I wholeheartedly agree that the more we learn about the universe (at least this is true for me) the more its depth and immeasurability awes. Science is a search for truth, but that search is nearly endless, and carries with it, I believe, a sense of respect for the mystery, and for our small place within it. I subscribe to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s definition of truth as “what lies at the limit of inquiry.” He defined truth as “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” – he saw science as a slow, collective effort toward revelation, with each dedicated scientist working to push further toward that ultimate understanding of the universe, never fully realizing it, but stripping away falsehood and distortion to move one layer closer. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at science and its relation to truth and inquiry. Truth is what we strive for: its revelation is in the future, but we can move closer to it together, through honest engagement.
Speaking of beautiful things, I love this paragraph, which elegantly illustrates one of the main themes of the story:
“He found allies and a wife and more enemies than he ever knew possible, but he didn’t forget what it was to be un-Septed. How it felt to have no control over whether he ate or starved, whether he had a life of purpose or not. He knew this to be wrong. He knew Valencia to be unfair. And he wanted, more than anything to change that, and to protect the people under his care for as long as he could.”
The story is, from beginning to end, a story about justice in many forms. Can you tell me a bit about where the inspiration came from for the Valencian power structures, the Coretrees, and the stratified world constructed around them?
RSAG: My backstory for the Grandmasters is that various nations from the Caribbean struck out on their own after societal and climate upheavals made staying on Earth impossible. A combined fleet of smaller, poorer islands, their ships were rigidly controlled by military forces and leaders from richer Western countries, as well as their own. The colonists in this age are genetically or technologically adapted for the rigors and dangers of long-term space travel, which grants them abilities like longer lives and less susceptibility to space radiation etc. But the ships of the Grandmasters were stratified so a lot of its passengers were crew to serve the needs of the ship and its leaders, and those who paid for their passage. On those long journeys, the West Indian love of certain games were a source of comfort for the Grandmasters, and the military leaders encouraged competitions built around Chess to help develop strategic thinking and ease the boredom of the monied class.
The Coretrees are a reflection of my belief that nature already does elegantly all the things we struggle to reproduce crudely. We know, for example, that large parts of ancient forests are actually one organism. That the largest living organism is a honey mushroom that stretches for several miles in the US state of Oregon. I imagined a world where that living organism is entangled not just physically, but on a quantum level with any part of itself. Like the Kairi in the story, who are a social democracy where every citizen has political and technological power, the Coretrees are communal and individual at the same time.
When the Grandmasters encounter the Coretrees, they don't see the forests of Valencia as a miraculous part of nature, they see a resource that will bring them the means for survival. They impose the unjust social structures of capitalism on its distribution and control, and revel in the power and riches they find without sharing them fairly, mirroring the mistakes Earth instead of building a new, better world, as the Kairi attempt to do. The Grandmasters believe in the hierarchy of blood and power because it's how they've survived, and the Kairi believe that the needs of the many must be considered before the needs of the few because of how they've succeeded. It was inevitable that the mistakes of a capitalist society would follow the Grandmasters into their new world because they start out on a foundation of believing some people are allowed to keep most of the resources needed for survival by virtue of an accident of birth, rather than by any dint of need and equitable distribution in the face of plenty. I'm also brushing up on the reality that colonialism has remained in control of this region in some unfortunate ways to this day, and I see that problem continuing in the future because we've learned the wrong lessons from our former oppressors.
RN: I love the reference to the honey mushroom. That ancient creature inspired one of my own Clarkesworld stories, the cli-fi parable “Albedo Season”. What a coincidence!
RSAG: Oh my, I've never read that! We are well met! You and I were on a bit of a wavelength with those stories. It's amazing how the same geeky facts inspire so many of us writers. And we both had unusual forests. I love your message about climate change, and the way you wove the science into the story in such an essential way. Thank you for sharing!
RN: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. And yes – well met! One of the most interesting things about this Better Dreaming series for me is the way it has helped me think through some of my own ideas, by seeing that many of the concerns I have are shared by other authors. I’ve been finding a surprising amount of kinship between us all.
You say above that “It was inevitable that the mistakes of a capitalist society would follow the Grandmasters into their new world because they start out on a foundation of believing some people are allowed to keep most of the resources needed for survival by virtue of an accident of birth, rather than by any dint of need and equitable distribution in the face of plenty. I'm also brushing up on the reality that colonialism has remained in control of this region in some unfortunate ways to this day, and I see that problem continuing in the future because we've learned the wrong lessons from our former oppressors.”
This is a statement that really resonates with me. A concern of mine lately has been the way that history repeats itself with variation. It’s a tendency that I relate to structure, and elsewhere I’ve spoken about this. I think an excellent metaphor for the way the past influences the present and future, drawn from biology again, is the Mojave Desert creosote bush. The bush is not a single, continuous organism, but rather a clonal colony. The original stem crown splits and fragments over centuries into segments, genetically identical to the original, which produce new branches along their outer edge—like a tree trunk with the center rotted away and only the outer tissue producing branches. The oldest known plant among the creosote, nicknamed “King Clone,” may have started from a seed almost 12,000 years ago. Now it is a ring of living plant tissue about 50 feet in diameter, tapped into an extensive system of roots that are both its own, living roots and the pathways of its ancient roots carved out over millennia, which have since died.
But there is more to the story: in fact, when the seeds of the creosote initially grew, they sprouted in places where the root systems of Ice-Age trees had been. Those root systems led to deep water, and following them down into that soil made it easier to get to that moisture. So now, when you look at a creosote “forest” (it’s hard to use that term for something that would rarely be more than knee-high), you are looking not only at a series of creatures who may have begun their life cycles before the Mayan pyramids were built—you are also looking at a map of an even older forest, the forest which was there before the creosote came. That primeval forest’s root pathways still inform and nurture the present structure. It is, in a sense, a “ghost forest”—but it isn’t a ghost; it is a history. This scientific fact is fascinating in itself, but it is also a metaphor, to me, for how history “haunts” and shapes the present, which grows within the system that history long ago established. Even an extinct system influences the shape of the present system.
This sense of colonial, capitalist tendencies continuing to haunt humankind long after the original societies have exhausted their resources or died away, is powerfully done here. But you also offer a solution – a return (continuing the biological metaphor) to the primeval forest itself, and a nurturing of it with a better food – not the pain of exploitation and division, but rather love. What you seem to suggest is that the old tendencies must be “rooted out” to heal the forest. Can you speak about this, and how it relates to our very real-world tendencies to stumble back into, or even re-create, the same dead-end systems those who came before us faced?
RSAG: Thank you for telling me about the creosote. It is a perfect metaphor for what I was building beneath the story, and which I think ended up coming more to the surface in the sequel/prequel to Sun, 'Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma', where I talk about the ways in which the Kairi and Eva were haunted by their own history, and the ways in which they did not learn from it, to their regret.
I love studying history, and there are few truer things than the old quote that those who don't learn from it are doomed to repeat it. It was terrifying to watch these past few years as country after country forgot how fragile and new democracy as a system of government is and began to backslide to the authoritarianism humanity relied on for millennia. This was not an accident. It was actively encouraged because governments are ultimately more concerned with exerting endless power over citizens than actively working for their benefit. It's easier to cultivate ignorance and foment division and rule over the fires and ashes than to care for each other equally, or to prioritize those that are not ourselves. Yet, in a time when we have more ability, resources and money than ever, it is inhumane that we continue to shift wealth to the wealthy, while telling those in need we cannot afford to help. There is this idea that we simply cannot shift from the inequality and exploitation of capitalism because it's aligned with good and everything else with bad. In reality, capitalism, communism, socialism…these things are theories and systems we use to try to guide economic distribution and social policy. They are not inherently good or bad. They have pros and cons. We could try to address the deficiencies in one area by shoring it up with the best ideas from another theory or system, but that essential survival mechanism of compromise is being lost in this insistence that all things are political and must be guided by political decisions. And that's quite useful for those who want to reduce power to politics, to winning and losing. I win, I get to do what I want, and I don’t have to consider anyone else. It's not how politics used to work, but in this new zero-sum world, it feels like it's some sort of permanent truth.
But that's the world of Kings and Emperors and warlords everywhere. That was the world we were working to root out. For many, we managed to move from one divinely appointed man running things to many people coming together to agree on governance. But the longing to be led and told what to think in a confusing world full of troubles and burdens, old and new, is seductive. Those hungry for power have exploited that most human reality. We wish to trust our leaders but in fact, we are ultimately responsible for them and must continually ensure they work for us. That they follow the new paths we are trying to create. If not, we are simply replacing rotted plants with more rotted plants, and the forest will die, and we will starve.
As writers of speculative fiction, I think one of the most important things we do is hold a mirror up to humanity and ask questions about what we see. The answers aren't always pleasant, but perhaps they will be honest. In this way, Sun attempted to trace the old roots of class, capitalism and exploitation, and show the ways in which it haunted Dee, but was actively fought by Eva and Dee in the end. I wanted to make a point. We don't find the way to better systems, better worlds, without fighting for it. And we fight for it by fighting for each other. By fighting to love each other and care for each other and prioritize those that most need help. It's a fight that does not end. It's always beginning, always inching forward. The moment we turn our backs on it, those that profit from power will follow the old, familiar paths of rotted roots that are doomed to fail us again.
Simply put, I think the Revolution cannot end, but it is not always outright war. It is, however, at its best, always rooted in love.
RN: I love this idea: “We don't find the way to better systems, better worlds, without fighting for it. And we fight for it by fighting for each other. By fighting to love each other and care for each other and prioritize those that most need help.” That really seems like the key. I’ve said, to myself and others, that sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to live honestly, to care openly, to be present for others and see them as just as important as oneself. I love this idea of fighting not against a system so much as for one another. It is an idea that is clearly the beating heart of “The Sun from Both Sides”. You know, there are so many other things we could talk about, but I think this is a wonderful place to come to a stopping point: with that idea of a revolution always rooted in love. I can get behind that revolution. I can join that wholeheartedly.
I agree that it is no easy thing to live honestly and care openly. But luckily for humans, love is something most of us desire to experience. Unlike warfare, you do not tire of it; it does not exhaust you into seeking to hide from its destructive effects. Instead, it is endless motivation. Fuel that allows a light to burn bright and strong, casting all things into sharp relief and showing the way forward, sometimes long after the initial source of that love is gone.
Thank you for this conversation: you’ve given me a lot to think about, and some ideas for how to live justly and well, and work to build a better world. I’ll be thinking about what we discussed here for a long time.
This month’s discussion is with David Mercurio Rivera (who writes as “Mercurio D. Rivera”) on his excellent story “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, which first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Asimov’s, and which offers us a starting off-point for speaking about many things – from the ethics of medical experimentation to Spider Man. The story is currently a finalist for the Asimov's Readers' Award in the novelette category, and can be found here. Enjoy!
RN: First of all, David, thank you for agreeing to do this. I really appreciate your support of this fledgling effort to encourage long-form, in-depth conversation about our field. And I want to say two things up front: One is that I loved “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” and can’t stop thinking about it. The other is that I thought this was one of the most depressing stories I have read in a long time. Anything that can engender those two strong, and seemingly antithetical, responses in me has real power, I think.
MDR: As a writer, I’m sure you know that’s the ultimate compliment: that someone has read your story and it’s made an impact and made them think. So, thank you. It’s my pleasure and honor to promote in-depth conversation about short speculative fiction—and depress the hell out of you, as necessary.
RN: My first question: "Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars" immediately made me think of "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon, which I luckily re-read recently. Tell me about the link between the two stories. The references are clear, and in many ways this seems like a sophisticated, up-to-the-moment update of "Microcosmic God", moving it from the from the sadistic, mid-Century industrial capitalism of its time to the perhaps even more sadistic structures of postmodern late capitalism and the gig / “like” economy. Can you talk a bit about the connection between the two stories (assuming, in your mind, there is one) and how "Microcosmic God" informed "Beyond the Tattered Veil"?
MDR: You’re not going to believe this, Ray, but I’ve never read a single word of Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God.” When Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams accepted the story, she also assumed it was riffing off of the Sturgeon story. And reviewer Rich Horton similarly described “Tattered Veil” as “in the lineage” of “Microcosmic God.” (I really should get around to reading it!). The germ of the idea for the story actually came from two sources: my interest in the ethics of animal experimentation, sacrificing lower life forms for the good of supposedly higher ones, and the Simulation Hypothesis, which posits that the Universe is nothing more that a simulation programmed by a higher intelligence. Looking back at the story after it was finished, I do think I might have been subconsciously influenced by another classic story: George R.R. Martin’s “Sand Kings,” which also involves the escalating torture of an alien life form. But I did try to ramp up the ethical quandary: the torture of the holographic “Sallies” isn’t motivated by pure sadism, at least initially, but for noble purposes. But then, as you notice, it does veer into the sadism sometimes engendered by modern capitalist culture with the Sallies being exploited for profit. Readers have confessed to feeling guilty about being drawn to the different types of torture inflicted on the Sallies’ society. I thought this was very cool on a meta-level since my protagonist, Cory, is a reporter who tortures the simulated beings to attract more readers. I considered Cory’s readers a stand-in for the readers of “Tattered Veil.” I’ll admit to injecting the suffering, and the action sequences, to keep my readers reading. I guess that makes me no better than Cory, in a way.
RN: I think you’re far from being Cory, given no Sallies were actually harmed in the making of your story (unless there is something I don’t know about! I have to say – it’s extraordinary that this story emerged in the way it did without you having read “Microcosmic God” – there are so many clear parallels between the two. I think a reading of either one of them is enriched by a reading of the other – if for no other reason, then as an examination of how the incentives of capitalism have shifted over time but remain fundamentally flawed in the actions they reward and channel people toward. And yes – it’s very interesting in the story how the initial motivations of the characters are more “noble,” and then over time are degraded into sadism by the system of incentives the characters are enmeshed in.
At the same time, it is interesting to me that from the start there is an ingrained contempt for the “Sallies” – a contempt that is reflected in the dismissive name attributed to them – a name that reads as derogatory and diminishing – comparing them explicitly to an “inferior” animal, the equivalent of them calling us “Monkeys.” The willingness to inflict harm to the “Sallies” in the name of progress, while being fully cognizant of their conscious nature and the suffering caused, was distressing to me from the start of my reading – as I am sure you intended it to be. It communicates a powerful sense of alienation from others which is symptomatic of both racism and contempt for other sentient beings in general. So, in that way, it is an extraordinarily powerful exploration of the moral quandaries of animal testing.
And I might go further: I immediately thought of the Tuskegee Study – the contempt it demonstrated to those victimized by it, and the justifications of working toward a “greater good” used (even down to the present moment) in an attempt to explain or excuse its unethical, racist reality. Was this something you had in mind as well?
You can see how making all these connections in my mind made this story so powerful – and extraordinarily depressing. Even the state the characters move from (their state at the beginning of the story) is a state of alienation and species-contempt – though balanced to a degree by “noble” (I feel compelled to put that word in scare quotes because it seems so attenuated by that underlying contempt) goals.
MDR: There is definitely a sense of species-ism that permeates the story. The term “Sallies” does seem like a typical pejorative slur. In fact, the female scientist scoffs at the comparison of the suffering in her simulation to the suffering of the real world. She asks: would it be ethical not to conduct research that could save so many lives in our world, children suffering from cancer, displaced coastal communities ravaged by climate change? In her mind, it’s a no-brainer. Obviously I wanted the readers to feel the opposite, which is why I used the alternating threads that allowed us to see the point of view of the suffering subjects of her research.
I didn’t have the Tuskegee Study specifically in mind when I wrote the story, probably because conducting secret experiments on human beings is so far over the line that it didn’t present any sort of interesting moral question to me. But you’re absolutely right that the rationalization for that kind of heinous conduct very much mirrors the conduct of the human characters in “Tattered Veil.” It becomes more morally palatable (or at least morally fuzzier) to the torturer/experimenter if they can rationalize that the subject of their experiment is less than human, so their pain and suffering doesn’t matter. Torturing a lab rat or a simulation is justifiable if the end goals are “noble,” so the thinking goes.
RN: Certainly one of the story’s more compelling aspects is initially holding up that “nobility” and then stripping it away, layer by layer. Here’s my next question: One of the things that is really interesting to me about this story is the way in which we initially want to sympathize with the main character -- in fact, I think we are lured into sympathizing with him -- but by the end of the story, he becomes as clearly abhorrent as the rest of the (Earth) characters are in the story -- and there are some truly abhorrent characters in the story.
MDR: The human characters certainly behave in an appalling way because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, but I’d like to think they’re not inherently abhorrent people. Milagros is driven by a truly noble purpose: she wants to rid the world of disease, solve climate change, and keep the planet safe. What could be more altruistic? And Cory is just trying to survive. He’s living with cancer, trying to stay afloat and make a living. He also wants to bring the story of the century to the public as soon as possible for mixed motives: to help cancer sufferers like himself and to earn enough money to secure his future. Because my two main human characters have absolute power over the Sallies, absolute corruption starts to creep in. He decides to make the story more exciting and more marketable by inserting some action sequences into it. But in the end, he’s back where he’s started, alone, cancer-stricken, tormented by questions about his future.
RN: I think it speaks to the high quality of this story, and to your skill as a writer, that these characters are far from being one-dimensional. They are, especially in the case of Cory, extraordinarily complex. Their motivations are clear, they feel justifiable (in the sense that you can see their self-justification and follow its logic) and in the case of Milagros, it is certainly clear that the intent is to help humanity – and to help it significantly.
The way, then, in which those motivations are initially tangled with the alienations of their society, and then are driven to sadism and complete contempt, is fascinating. To focus on one twisted incentive that figures in the story: health care. Cory’s attempts to stay afloat are largely related to a lack of health care and his battle with cancer. Can you speak specifically about how you view the current health care situation in the U.S. and how you constructed this story around a critique of that?
MDR: As someone who’s navigated the healthcare system for sick family members, I’ve seen up close how, without someone to advocate for you, things can go wrong fast. And they’ve been fortunate in that they at least have healthcare. For those in our dysfunctional system who have healthcare, it’s often tied to your job. As a result, people sometimes stay in jobs they hate for fear of losing their health coverage and being bankrupted by a sudden injury or illness. Important life decisions are being made based on fear.
Before the story begins, Cory has experienced homelessness and terrible suffering as a result of his illness. It’s understandable (though not excusable) when he goes so far as to inflict terrible death and suffering on simulated beings for his own economic security.
RN: I agree: it is perfectly understandable, and remains inexcusable, a quandary which really lies at the heart of this story – the way, again, in which twisted incentives drive twisted actions. As discussed a bit above, It becomes clear as the story goes on that the characters, in many ways, lack agency: they are driven to their despicable actions by a system of (again, late capitalist) incentives that dehumanize and entrap them. There's no clear opportunity to be good -- everything in the structure of their (our) society channels them toward exploitative behaviors. How much do you, as a writer, believe in individual responsibility and agency, and how are those beliefs reflected in "Tattered Veil"?
MDR: Even though the human characters in the story have reasons for the terrible things they do, they aren’t relieved of personal responsibility and both pay a terrible price. Milagros (which translates as “miracles” in Spanish, btw) pays the ultimate price, and Cory is once again on a path to becoming destitute, afflicted by a recurrence of his cancer and hurled into an existential crisis. (There’s nothing more satisfying than a good comeuppance.)
In terms of capitalism gone wrong, the simulation tech that’s being used, as we ultimately come to learn, is stolen technology owned by a conglomerate unlikely to simply release those inventions to the public. More likely, the corporation will monopolize the product and control its distribution to maximize its profits. This drives Milagros’s behavior.
It’s funny you honed in on this question of agency since that’s what I was hoping the reader would be wondering about: how much agency do any of us really have in our own lives? Do we have control? Or are we puppets dancing to the whims of outside forces? Yes, outside forces help shape us -- in this story quite literally – and that can be a depressing thought. But we do all bear personal responsibility for our actions nonetheless. At least the Sallies provide some small measure of hope, showing agency and taking control of the situation. Their arc, stretching out over generations--from blind devotees, to the conquerors of their Gods and crafters of their own destiny--is pretty incredible and inspiring. (Let’s all stay positive and ignore the fact they’re experimenting on their own simulations, okay?)
RN: Yes – in order to stay positive, we’ll avoid talking about that layer, though I love that it is there. And the Sallies showing agency, and taking control over their own destiny, really is the part of the story that is hopeful. In that sense, there is a distinctly “post-human” flavor to the tale: if humanity is not capable of taking on the challenge of breaking free, humanity’s creating will – and will sweep past humanity and move upward through the spiral of worlds to “find the gods’ gods and bring them to justice” – an extraordinary ambition, and one that brings to mind another connection I kept coming back to: Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism – specifically the Gnostic concept of emanations, and the degraded Demiurge, the god of the material, human world, often depicted foolish or even malevolent. The later scenes of “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” remind me very much of Philip K. Dick’s sophisticated and strange Gnostic take on the universe. How much do you see that connection? Or were you drawing from other sources? Am I seeing a Philip K. Dick connection where none exists, like the earlier one to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God”?
MDR: I haven’t read PKD in a long time, so I can’t say I was influenced by those Gnostic concepts. But I can see the connection now that you mention it. The Gods have Gods who have Gods. The fact that the God directly above you is malevolent does gibe with that concept of the degraded Demiurge. The end of “Tattered Veil” was inspired by the recent scientific theory that the Universe is nothing more than a simulation. And once you have some higher intelligence programming all of reality as we know it, the next question has to be who the heck is programming their reality. It’s a simple nesting doll concept, only stretching into infinity in both directions.
RN: The simulation hypothesis isn’t one I found particularly compelling – at least until reading this story, which I think makes excellent use of the moral quandaries it poses. Which brings me to a question that, perhaps, is fundamental for any writer of science fiction: What, exactly, is the position of science in science fiction? I’ve said elsewhere that, in my own opinion, SF is not predictive, it is predicative. It uses the raw materials of science not as a set of facts, necessarily, but as grounds for a shift in the world upon which it predicates (founds or bases something on) a set of events, often using that predication in a parallel manner as commentary upon the present world. That seems to me to be the way science is being used here: it isn’t important, fundamentally, whether the simulation hypothesis is true: the way it appears to function in your story is as a looking glass with which to view human behavior and ethical concerns that are fundamentally “here and now.” Does that seem like a fair way of framing your use of science here? And is that consistent across your work, or are there other ways you use it in other stories?
MDR: Yes, for me, that’s the essence of science fiction, exploring questions about the here and now through the funhouse mirror of possible futures. I don’t usually provide answers, mind you, but I do love exploring the questions. (I’ve found that readers usually supply their own answers based on whatever it is they take away from my stories.) I enjoy reading scientific journals, watching documentaries on the Science Channel, learning about recent discoveries in astronomy and the newest theories in cosmology. This is an especially exciting time because of the incredible advancements made in the study of exoplanets. With the launch of the Webb Telescope, we’ll soon be studying the atmospheres of exoplanets to hunt for signs of life. All amazing stuff. I do think we owe it to our readers to get those kinds of details right if we’re going to include them in our stories. We can hand-wave away elements that are inconsistent with our present-day knowledge of science, but it’s important to be knowledgeable enough to know exactly what needs to be hand-waved away. I attended both “LaunchPad” in Wyoming and “The Schroedinger Sessions” in Maryland, workshops which provide sci-fi writers a crash course in astronomy and quantum physics, respectively. Yes, all of this provides the “raw material” upon which we can build our stories. But I agree it’s really not so much about predicting the future as it is about using possible futures to shine a light on the present.
I’m fairly consistent with this approach across most of my stories. For example, I’ve written about a dozen stories in my Wergen Universe, which involves advanced aliens that have a weird biochemical obsession with human beings, an attraction they call “love.” In each of those stories I explore a different type of love (maternal love, romantic courtship, marital love, friendship, love for a pet, etc., etc.) and set it against this futuristic backdrop of mankind’s interactions with this alien species. The stories’ plots involve alien contact, wormhole-generating spaceships, futuristic alien technologies and planetary colonization, but that’s not what they’re about. They’re about exploring the human condition and the nature of love. (Those stories, btw, are being collected in my mosaic novel, The Love War, being published by NewCon Press later this year). In my WFA-nominated story “Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us,” we come to learn that dark magic can protect us from “terroristas,” all we need to do is capture one and subject him to endless torture. That story is not about magic or terrorism or a possible future, it’s about the dark places we’re willing to go to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and the terrible price we pay in the process. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.
RN: Please stop adding to my already daunting reading list, David. But seriously – congratulations on the upcoming publication! That novel sounds fantastic. And I completely agree with what you say above about owing it to our readers to get the details right for me it’s more about verisimilitude than strict accuracy, but as I say that I also realize that I have done a doctorate’s amount of hard science research for the novel I recently drafted, so there is a tension there, for me: I want absolute accuracy, combined with predicative freedom. That’s a complexity, most likely, best left for another conversation.
Here is a question that is a bit more related to craft: One of the things I love about the story is the offhand mention of larger things -- in the end, tremendously larger, but initially just asides, like this one: “’Asteroid defense? I’m surprised EncelaCorp hasn’t figured that out by now,’ he said. The conglomerate was streaming the consciousness of astronauts into outer space and exploring rogue planets; asteroid defense seemed simple in comparison.” These asides do a great job of suggesting a universe that is much wider than this slice we are dealing with. How does this relate to how you, as a writer, build atmosphere in your work?
MDR: I love these types of asides in the science fiction I read as well. I try to insert sentences like these in all of my stories as a world-building tool. I like to think of them as writing “brushstrokes.” In this case, however, it was a much easier lift because I was referencing an earlier story I published with Asimov’s called “Unreeled” in which an astronaut working for EncelaCorp has her psyche projected into a black hole and is then reeled back into our universe. To her husband she appears slightly different, alien in sinister ways he can’t quite identify, but he’s not the most reliable narrator since their marriage was already on the rocks for some time. Also, “EncelaCorp” is my stand-in for “the Great Big Evil Corporation.” I’ve used the company name in about half a dozen or more of my stories. To those who catch the reference to “Unreeled,” I thought they might be amused to realize they’re reading a story in the same universe. To those unfamiliar with the prior story, I hoped it would have the effect you described, creating the sense this is part of a much larger world.
RN: I like the term “brushstrokes” for this kind of hinting at a larger universe in short work. I talk about this a bit as well in a blog I did for Asimov’s on atmosphere. I think it’s very effective when done right: it gives a sense of something just over the horizon – or, in this case, links to another work of your own, allowing readers that feeling of this story taking place within a larger context.
MDR: Absolutely. I like the way you put it in your column: a suggestive detail that creates the feeling of “a world just beyond the page.” It’s amazing how the author can just drop a little hint and the reader’s mind rushes to fill in the rest. (You do an amazing job of this yourself, by the way, in “Return to the Red Castle,” which appeared in the same issue of Asimov’s as “Tattered Veil.” It’s an affecting story with off-the-charts world-building!)
Thank you! I’m very glad you like “Return to the Red Castle” and that it has that sense, for you, of “a world just beyond the page.” That is such an important concept, for me. Another question on craft: One of the things that really makes this story work is the way the realistic depiction of the characters. I think “Microcosmic God,” for example, does this very poorly. Like a lot of so-called “Golden Age” SF (and I am generalizing – this is certainly not always true), its ideas are brilliant, but their delivery is often made wooden by the caricature-like or puppet-like depiction of the actual people involved. Not so here – as I mentioned above, I think these characters are very finely drawn. How important is character to you? And how do you create characters?
MDR: I’ll confess that nailing down my characters is the most challenging part of writing for me. My stories tend to start off with the germ of an idea (in this case “what if we lived in a simulated universe and all of our suffering was programmed?”) and then I outline relentlessly until I come up with a plot. My first drafts tend to have all the right story beats pretty much in place. But then the next ninety-three drafts are devoted to fleshing out my characters. It’s not easy for me. (I’m not sure about you, but I know many other writers start off with the characters and then work in the opposite direction to develop their plot). The beta readers in my amazing writers group, Altered Fluid, always help tremendously. In this story, my characters’ gender, background, motivation and relationship all changed drastically with each draft.
Speaking of craft challenges, in a third-person story, I made a conscious decision to switch over to first-person for some of the entries in the historical chronicles of the simulated people. I felt it was necessary to help make the reader truly empathize with their suffering. Being told about their plight isn’t quite as affecting as experiencing the scene with their legendary foremother, who’s comforting her dying daughter in her final moments. I wasn’t sure switching to first-person would work. And it’s not something I would have dared to even try a few years ago.
It’s curious how the simulated world in the story is subjected to a global pandemic to test its ingenuity and resolve—at the exact same time we were being tested. The story was published in March/April of 2020, just as our country was going on lockdown.
RN: It really is a curious coincidence – perhaps our own gods will find better vaccines for the plagues on their world once all of this is over. I hope they get what they want from us, and don’t just ramp up the torture.
But seriously, I am surprised to hear you say that you have difficulty with character: it stands out for me as a strength, so you are certainly doing a good job of concentrating on your weaknesses, to the degree where I would say the characters are fully as interesting as the concepts.
I do think the third person / first person juxtaposition was an excellent choice: first person draws us closer to the “Sallies” and, in a sense, may help the reader overcome their own “speciesism.” Two questions for you: what other narrative lessons did you learn from this story that you find yourself applying elsewhere? And what works influence you most as a writer? What was formative for you? I keep trying to guess at your inspiration and failing, so I would love to hear more about what you are drawing on.
Despite the familiar refrain about showing not telling, I’m always struggling to find that right balance. I’ve impressed when a master like Ursula K. LeGuin can just “tell” to her heart’s content and sweep us along on amazing journeys through alien societies. In “Tattered Veil” I similarly wanted to “tell” the history of the Sallies and their matriarchal society, the suffering experienced over generations by a single family, and the betrayal by their Gods. But what LeGuin makes look so easy is actually really challenging, which is why I resorted to some first-person inserts.
As I mentioned above, my characters changed significantly from draft to draft, but I’m glad I landed where I did with my protagonist/villain Milagros Maldonado, giving her a Puerto Rican background. My family is of Puerto Rican/Spanish descent and they’re always proud when a Boricua shows up in unexpected places. (One of my uncles always told a story about encountering a Puerto Rican-owned café somewhere on the edge of the Sahara Desert.) Likewise, in my novelette “In The Stillness Between the Stars” my Puerto Rican protag places a call to San Juan from across the Solar System to speak with the young son he left behind. My upcoming Asimov’s story “Filaments” features a Venezuelan protag. It’s always fun to spice up the stories by adding characters with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Influences? LeGuin is amazing; I loved Borges. I enjoyed reading the usual suspects: Niven, Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury. I love Nancy Kress, Kelly Link and (fellow Altered Fluidian) N.K. Jemisin. On the literary side, I went through phases where I devoured John Steinbeck, Jane Austin and, more recently, John Irving. Probably my most formative influence as a kid was burying my head in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Silver Age Marvel comics. The humanity of those characters drew me in. In fact, I can point to one scene in one issue that had the greatest impact on me, and is probably why I’m a writer today. In Amazing Spider-Man # 122, the iconic “Death of Gwen Stacy” issue written by Gerry Conway, there’s an epilogue, a single page, which rocked my world. After the shocking death of his girlfriend, a weepy Peter Parker is approached by Mary Jane Watson, who’s trying to comfort him. He rips into her, saying cruel things about how she wouldn’t care if her own mother died. As she’s about to leave the room in tears, she pauses, lifts her chin, and stays with him. My 12-year old brain struggled to fill in all the blanks, to get inside their heads. I couldn’t understand. Why was the good guy being so cruel? Then it hit me: he was racked with grief, saying one thing, but meaning something else entirely. And she had understood this.
New writers make the mistake of having their characters always be honest. It’s way more interesting when they’re lying to themselves, when they say one thing and we all know they mean something else. One of my favorite novels is Dune, and I especially love that element of it: characters consistently saying one thing and meaning something else.
RN: That’s a well-rounded set of influences, ranging from “high” literature to what has been sometimes dismissed as “low-brow.” Like you, I grew up reading from a range of genres, and I have been as influenced, probably, by comics, film, and painting as I have by books proper.
I feel like there are endless alleyways we could go down, and so much left for us to discuss – “a world just beyond the page” of other ideas to explore. But this seems like a good place to wind up, with that scene from Spider Man and a reminder of the connection between your 12 year old’s enlightenment and your current skill in doing the same for your readers.
Yes, let’s leave a few subjects “just beyond the page” (I have to fight the urge to say “beyond the tattered page”) to pique the readers’ interest. In the end, after all, it’s the reader who decides what the story means—no matter the author’s intentions.
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.
Thanks for inviting me to participate, Ray.
RN: First of all, Oghenechovwe, thank you for taking part in this project. And thank you for choosing “Ife-Iyoku” as the story you’d like to talk about. I think there is a lot to discuss here – it’s going to be a very interesting conversation.
Let’s start here: The story is divided into two distinct sections. The first is the Nlaagama hunt, in the beginning, and then the village scene. In the Nlaagama hunt, there is a tension between the tropes of science fiction and the tropes of fantasy (the antelope's description clearly references the unicorn, and the Nlaagama, when fully described, turns out to be much like the dragon of fantasy. Yet both are the product of nuclear war and mutation.
This feels like an interrogation (and I mean that in a good way) of the boundary between the two genres. Please talk a little about how you view the genres of science fiction and fantasy -- especially their boundaries and entanglements -- and how that reflects in the world of "Ife-Iyoku".
ODE: I've always been interested in the intersection between science fiction and fantasy. As you know, Africa is a deeply spiritual place. And some people tend to believe that this makes it less scientific. But I align well with Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And what if spirituality, all the pockets of unexplainable phenomena we call magic or dismiss altogether, is science: Real things with rules we just don't understand or have forgotten. Unicorns, dragons, all the creatures of myth might be more than myth. There are, after all, dinosaurs that had a close physical resemblance to these mythical creatures. So I try to explore this intersection in my work, to make people see the possibility of there being a connection between science and magic, a juxtaposition. Ironically, I thought that was a good book – Juxtaposition, by Piers Anthony. At least when I read it, decades ago. I explore a lot of these themes in other of my works, yet to be published. And I believe that there is more science to the universe than that born in a lab, in the West, through the demise of guinea pigs and human test subjects made willing by the demands of capitalism. It is this I wish to explore, through my world: creatures, science, and magic systems.
RN: Indeed, “systems” seem to pervade the story, and we get a sense of a close linkage between the members of Ife-Iyoku, of all of them functioning as a single system: their lives and deaths ae connected to one another, and they appear to share a single essence. Tell us a bit more about this bond between them all, and the role that plays in their sense of identity.
ODE: I believe that the interconnectivity of people in a society is at every level. It's just not something we are always aware of. It's there whether we see it or not. And I believe this became more apparent during the pandemic. We easily saw how the actions of others, their life or death affected us. Lockdowns, and their relaxations, depended on this. And that in turn impacted the life and survival of others. This sense of dependence, of connectivity is what I sought to invoke, even though the story was written before the pandemic. In Ife-Iyoku, they evolved as a society, perhaps akin to the herd immunity we talk about today. And there were continued adjustments to their evolution like I said before, the actions of the one influence the well-being of the rest. We also see that today, in masking policies, the actions of singular persons, like Donald Trump and other super-spreaders. Both positively and negatively, for good or ill, we are connected. Our lives or death impact each other. And this is something I sought to explore in my story and it's something the pandemic has been able to illustrate very clearly. How pertinent, the themes we try to pass in our stories. There are rarely as clear, as obviously relevant to real life until events like this make them so. Though, they are no less relevant for that lack of clearness. Understanding this connectivity and allowing it to affect our idea and understanding of society, and our identity will allow it to affect our actions and do a lot in impacting our collective society.
RN: I completely agree with you on how much the pandemic we are still going through has demonstrated how interconnected all of us are. It is also fascinating how sometimes history intervenes to give a story an added resonance – and that certainly is the case here. In 2019 perhaps people could (ignorantly) still put forward the pretense that national and local policies were just that – national, and local. Now we see that national and local policies, and even personal decisions, have life or death consequences that affect everyone on Earth. That in fact the ideas of “national” and “local” are illusory and fictional: interconnectivity was the primary lesson, I think, of 2020, and of 2021. I hope that this lesson holds: It certainly has not held in the past, to our species’ detriment.
On to my next question: At one point, while weaving her tale, Ologbon the Weaver says, "You must know your history if you are to seize for yourself a future." This appears to hit at one of the core themes of the story. Talk a little bit about that importance of history and self-knowledge, and how you present it here.
ODE: I believe that life is a cycle. There are patterns in existence. And while we might seem to be charting new courses, breakthroughs, everything we do, we have done before in some form or version in the past. Patterns as I said. We fight wars for the same reasons. Resources, human relations, etc. So, whether with guns or spears or blasters or thermonuclear weapons, we are fighting the same wars, going through the same motions we always have. And if we learn to understand these patterns, we might be able to break away from them – the more harmful ones anyway—and consciously work towards the beneficial ones we only seem to incidentally stumble towards. Again, the relationship between science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy tends to focus more on the past and science on the future. And this distinction makes people believe that sci-fi is more important. This is a conclusion one might come to if one is thinking about these things at a surface level. But I have found that patterns are the key to solving problems and without understanding the root causes of issues, we are doomed to be unable to make fundamental changes in things. The short story Ife-Iyoku which you read eventually morphs into a novella, which is published in Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora. It explores some more of these very issues I am talking about and if you were able to read it, you would see how much the society falls into the same destructive patterns that led it there, because it failed to heed the Weaver’s warnings.
RN: Another binary in Science Fiction is utopia / dystopia. This story, however, seems to again be mixing the two together: there is a strong message of hope that the people from inside Ife, whose "blood and bodies are stronger" and who "adapted abilities to make up for what we lost and to enable us survive in this new world" will re-emerge from Ife and establish a new Afrika. Do you view this story as a dystopia? A utopia? Or something very different from either?
ODE: The story is a dystopia, reaching for a utopia. As I believe is all life. Humanity is always struggling to reach that point where it betters itself and everything makes sense. We are constantly reaching for utopia, a perfect society that caters to all our needs and desires. But this is a continuous journey, a goal we may never attain. In fact, the force that moves us to search for a utopia or perfection may keep us from ever reaching it – because if ever we do reach it, we may fail to realize we have done so, and may go on searching, moving away from it again. Perhaps we do reach it every day but fail to recognize that we do. In this story they do have elements of the things one would consider ideal in a utopia. They manage their resources rather well, they are stronger and physically more advanced and healthier than regular humans, even having powers that are fantastical. They have eclipsed the form the average human has. A bit of a spoiler: I mentioned earlier that the story morphed into a novella. Well, that novella is morphing into a three-book series. Perhaps, even beyond that. There's a supernation somewhere there, a hyper-Wakanda where the average citizen, not just the king, is gifted and advanced physically and intellectually, and the technology of the place is infinitely enhanced by the seamless merger of science and spiritualism, a pure understanding of the elements of the universe we refer to as science. And those books will explore the complex and tense socio-political atmosphere as the world tries to deal with this new supernation it tried and failed to destroy. Futurisms have long explored the what if of Africa. What if it was never exploited, conquered, or enslaved as it was and it's development rolled back? Wakanda-esque stories. Or what if it was the exploiter and conqueror, as in Mallorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. I want to explore in Ife-Iyoku, the tale of what if they did conquer Africa, as they did, and Africa came out of it the stronger and more dominant, as is actually possible. A future that is not just good, but possible. What if? Perhaps that would be a utopia. But what is a utopia for one isn’t always one for all or others. I suppose the term utopia is one that needs a lot more examination. That is something I would like to do in my works as well.
RN: I have said elsewhere that one of the things I have come to believe, in my many years away from the West, is that individualism, in the firmest Western sense, is a sham. We aren’t individuals; our ability to communicate is collective: it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. Our lives are embedded in the collective.
I see this thought very much mirrored in "Ife Iyoku" when Ologbon says "despite all that happened, survival is collective. If man would survive, we must do so together, as one. We must think of all and not of individuals.” How do you view the concept of individuality and the collective?
ODE: I very much align with the idea of the collective. I don't believe man is a solitary animal. And the only reason we have been able to survive this long is our embracing of the collective. At least the times we did. Don't get me wrong. There is uniqueness in that collectiveness. And I believe that uniqueness can be appreciated and celebrated, while maintaining the collective identity. I believe this is the key to man's survival. We must think of the world as a home. And of the different continents as rooms with their occupants. The room next to you being on fire wouldn't be someone else's room being on fire. It would be part of your house being on fire. I believe that divesting ourselves of this collective way of viewing the world has resulted in a lot of harm. Global warming, plastic pollution, and other such harms done the environment are a clear result of this kind of thinking. What is that thing they say? America first. Lol. Exactly that kind of thinking. It should be nobody first. Life, humanity first. In Africa, we place great stock on family, and community. A lot of the time it takes a whole community to crowdfund someone's education abroad. GoFundMe’s are run regularly for people with admission to institutions abroad that they can't afford the tuition for. Gofundme and other crowd funding platforms asides, this has long been how things ran, at the family level, even before technology. Sometimes everyone has to sit back so one person can go, and that person is expected to carry the family along after him. We have a strong sense of family and community. I think this is one of the better traits of humanity, that we do well to cultivate and display more widely.
RN: I have two questions here: The first: The opening scene of “Ife-Iyoku” certainly reinforces that sense of collective responsibility and the community, in its depiction of a group hunt in which the most important element is cooperative action. The “protagonist” Morako – and I use this term “protagonist” loosely, as really this does feel more like a story about a group than a story about one person -- is a lero or “feeler”. Later in the story we see that this ability makes him much more vulnerable, in a sense. That vulnerability isn’t normally a masculine trait, in our highly prescriptive society (though I hope those stereotypes are eroding.) Talk a little about gender roles in the world of “Ife-Iyoku” and how you envision them in your work in general?
ODE: Our world today is heavily pervaded by gender inequality, and fixed gender roles based on our perceptions of gender. Toxic masculinity has demanded exaggerated displays of strength from men while portraying any show of emotional sensitivity as weak or womanly. The two, weakness and visible display of emotion, being even considered synonymous by misogynistic society. Well, Ife-Iyoku is a world of the near future, one in which these same problems exist. In fact, some of them are exacerbated by the situation and circumstances they find themselves in. Even in our world today men have relegated women to reproduction, assigning them roles of procreation and saddling them with the continuity of the human race. In a society that believes its extinction is imminent, there is an unfortunately high level of pressure on women in that society to procreate and this is shown in several ways in the story. It is of course, not ideal. The story is merely a tool to show the harm these outdated ideals can cause and the ruination it can rain on a society. The very thing they fear, extinction, their fearful actions lead them to. Like the trope of encountering your destiny on the road you take to escape it. A lot more of this appears in the Ife-Iyoku novella. I will make a slight confession. This story is inspired by the society I live in, in Nigeria. From being hemmed in, in corrupt, damaged environs, to the misogyny that exists in every layer of our society, to the desperate desire of some to escape the trap of their society, to the fight to not just live, but have a life, by others. The story Ife-Iyoku is a warning of my society, to my society, of the dangers inherent in the path we are heading down. Sci-fi is supposed to predict the future, after all. Or prevent it. And that future isn't always one of high technological advancement. Sometimes it's this, impending destruction if we do not turn from our path. Not to be a prophet of doom, but I do believe this needs to be said.
RN: What a brilliant quote: “Sci-fi is supposed to predict the future, after all. Or prevent it.” I love that. I feel like one of the highly underappreciated elements of SF is its “interventionist” quality – the way in which, by calling into question and commenting from a differing distance on contemporary society, it might light a path to a better world.
Here is my second question: As you said above, “what is a utopia for one isn’t always one for all or others.” Some would say that a focus on the collective over the individual is of detriment to individuals – especially to individuals who do not fit into their ‘proper’ places in society. How would you respond to that?
ODE: The idea that that focus on the collective erases the individual is somewhat simplistic and incorrect. Focus on the collective embraces rather than erases. Society, for example, is further broken into family units. This fact does not erode the family unit. In the same way, the collective is made up of and enhanced by the individual. Collective thinking does not need to erode individuality: rather, it can recognize and embrace it, if done well. Like I said before, it is thinking of things on a surface level that leads to the idea that the collective and the individual are mutually exclusive or at loggerheads. The search or desire for easy or simple solutions can also be the cause of this. And that is what I try to explore in my work. Helping us understand that there are no easy answers and reaching for utopia will involve more than the most obvious and the first answers that come to mind.
RN: I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that this collective / individual binary is false. As I stated in an earlier question, I believe the entire Cartesian sense of individuality is false: Our ability to communicate is collective – it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. Our lives are embedded in the collective. And adding to that thought, I think that our ability to make change is reliant upon our concrete connections to the collective in which we exist. It’s precisely that connectedness to community that gives us relevance.
This is something that the ancient Greeks understood, but that in some ways the West appears to have forgotten. For the Greeks the ‘polis’ is not the city as we think of it today, the physical place, but rather the collectivity of individuals who compose the ‘polis.’ When Herodotus speaks of Athens being evacuated in the face of the Persian onslaught, he is not saying that the city was emptied out – he is saying that the city moved its location, leaving their houses and temples behind.
Aristotle’s often quoted but little understood statement approximated as “Man is a political animal” really might be better translated as “Man is of the city.” The human is a part of the ‘polis’ – the community. Human activity in isolation is meaningless activity. So, rather than being mutually exclusive, we could say that it is precisely the collective which gives the individual meaning, and the individuals of the collective which, taken as aggregate, give the collective meaning. They emerge, and they succeed or fail, only together. Our modern, “Western” sense of individuality is a betrayal of the original Greek sense in which it was meant.
Enlarging and enriching our sense of community appears to me to be the primary task before us as a species, and understanding our interconnectedness is the work we must do to succeed in that task. Speaking of success or failure – I think that has been an amazing conversation, and I am grateful to you for your time and effort, and for the contribution that “Ife-Iyoku” makes to our collective understanding, and to my understanding as an individual.
ODE: Well, thanks for chatting with me Ray. It's been a pleasure having these conversations with you, getting to explore all these parts of my writing and find out what truths they might point at and answers they might lead to. Patrick Rothfuss did write in The Wise Man's Fear that “All the truth in the world is held in stories.” Perhaps there is something to that. And our stories are truth wormholes. And if we keep exploring these other worlds, who knows? They might lead us to answers we can use here in our own. Thanks again for having me.
This month I have the privilege of talking with Andy Dudak, prolific short story writer and translator, about his recent Clarkesworld story “Songs of Activation.” This story offers many windows into the writer’s art. Andy and I explore a few of them below. Enjoy! And please do contribute to the conversation in the comments – I assure you either Andy, myself, or someone else will respond.
RN: First of all, Andy – thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this fledgling project. And thank you for choosing your story “Songs of Activation”. This story is extraordinarily rich. I find myself with many, many questions I could ask, but I have to limit myself.
So, here is the first question: There is a line early on in the story which builds a bridge between science and ideology that I find fascinating. It seems like a great place to start talking about this story’s themes: “The finer ethical justifications of empire, as worked out by the ancients. The properties of quantized spacetime, which make it the ultimate data storage medium, and allow it to be manipulated, colonized, and settled.” Throughout the story, we see science and ideology woven together. They are the warp and weft of the world you create. Arguably, they are warp and weft of our own as well. Can you speak a bit about this tapestry of science and ideology functions in the story and – if you are willing – how you might be using that to reflect on or explore their function in our world?
AD: I guess science and ideology form a feedback loop, shaping each other. With science and colonialism in particular, it’s clear how this works, from gun powder to the military industrial complex. In the story, I describe spacetime as ripe for colonization. I set that up for contrast with the alternate POV that Pinander later attains. The main conceit of the story—knowledge uploaded to student brains and activated as they memorize certain songs—is meant to illustrate how education plays a key role in the science/ideology loop. How knowledge is activated depends on ideology. An empire might see quantized spacetime (and entanglement of spacetime quanta) as an opportunity to manipulate, to colonize. Another POV might learn the same physics and think ‘Universal oneness,’ leading to a pacifist policy of respecting the other.
RN: I like what you say above about how education plays a key role in the science/ideology loop and “how knowledge is activated depends on ideology.” In another conversation, I talk about how I see science, philosophy, literature, and economics as firmly intertwined. For example, the way Darwin’s (much misinterpreted) scientific theories were rooted in capitalism but then also became a system in which other ideas took root: ideas of social structure, competition, efficiency, and adaptation that were borrowed by Darwin from capitalist, machine, and factory metaphors, then became themselves “scientific” metaphors to which people appealed to justify the worst excesses of industrial capitalism. Those “Darwinian” concepts still shape how we think about society today.
But beyond this entanglement, there is another side to this story – Pinander is introduced to a different way of viewing the world. He is, in fact, chosen to be introduced to it. As the professor who does so puts it, “I think you can handle both contexts at once.” What is it about the character of Pinander that allows him to be able to do this when others in the story cannot?”
AD: Pinander is an outsider at the university because of his economic status. He’s had to work harder than anyone else to be there. He sees things differently from the other students. I tried to illustrate this with the Titan-analog atmosphere and sky, which most students ignore, trusting in the shield holding it at bay, while Pinander can’t stop looking up at it and obsessing on it. The rich students’ party and the ansible calls home also provided opportunities to show Pinander’s fundamentally different perspective. Overall, I think it comes down to his pragmatism. I tried to set that up as a quirk or even character flaw, knowing he would find some sort of idealism in the end, but it turned out his pragmatism was essential to getting there. Does this make any sense? To be honest, Pin took on a life of his own as I wrote, and he sort of went where he went. Maybe it’s easier for a poor scholar-shipper to understand a rich student’s POV than the other way around, making Pin uniquely primed for the dual perspective of Weald/Sinecure.
RN: That does make sense to me – his status as an outsider, and economic status being the cause for that outsider’s awareness, work well in the story. Speaking of that: One of the themes you return to again and again in this story is that of class difference. Here’s a great passage dedicated to that concern:
“The revelers sway drunkenly, heads hanging, amid rolling stormfronts of smart vapor. Here in the compounds this is possible, where obscene wealth keeps campus law at bay. Compared to these students, dorm denizens, still fabulously wealthy by empire standards, might as well be paupers.
Pinander wonders what that makes him.
Wandering through ornate gardens in his black student robe, he draws looks from fashionably and scantily clad partygoers. There is commotion ahead, a crowd psychedelically blurred by smart vapor. He gives it wide berth—a fight, from what he can hear. Someone stole someone’s meds. This contributes to Pinander’s sense of being an alien here. It is usually the most privileged students who engage in theft, violence, and drugs. He remembers Philo lobbing a cannister of vandalism nano at the façade of the Crypt. Pinander couldn’t fathom this. Philo’s clan paid a fortune to send him here, and he was an adult choosing to stay.”
It's a powerfully relatable passage for me, so precisely paralleling the “real world” experience of class difference and privilege that it brought me back immediately to my UCSC undergraduate days, when I (along with many others) was working full time while taking a full load of classes, and watching, with resentment, students fully supported by their wealthy families – kids who only had to study, not support themselves as well, screw around and waste the opportunities they had been given.
This story is suffused with the resentments of class consciousness, and the limitations Pinander finds himself under, as a “working class” student among the rich. In a follow-up I want to address the potentials that also provides, but for the time being, I’d like to know why you chose this theme. Can you speak a bit about that?
AD: I think Pinander’s backstory evolved as a way to set him apart from other students. I needed him to be something of a “chosen one,” but I didn’t want him to have special lineage or anything like that. I gave him the cynical pragmatism that can evolve in response to hobbyist idealisms of the privileged. This establishes Pinander’s arc, since he ends up with genuine idealism. At some point while writing this story, I saw a tweet about the tendency of the most privileged students to steal and get in trouble. This got me thinking back to my own university days and I realized it’s true. I was somewhere between poor and privileged, but I remember the rich screw-ups. So, Pinander’s background gives him both the strength-of-character and room-for-arc to turn an empire on its ear, and (hopefully) be interesting while he’s doing it.
RN: Say a bit more, please, about the “hobbyist idealisms of the privileged” that you mention above. It’s certainly something you address in the story – the way Pinander views even Jain’s suicide as the kind of selfish act he cannot afford. How does his lack of freedom due to economic constriction lend Pinander’s decisions more weight than those who have more options? Intuition (I am definitely playing Devil’s Advocate here) would seem to tell us that having more freedom, rather than less, would make one’s eventual decisions more “authentic.” Why do you view it as the reverse?
AD: In another story (long ago trunked) I had a main character from a poor country who hunted endangered bushmeat to survive. She found the pretentions of rich foreign conservationists laughable. I’m all for conservation, but when I stumbled upon this character trait, she really came to life for me and it was much easier to write her. I empathized, possibly because of my decade in China, and the hypocrisy of pig-eating Westerners judging various Asian meat dishes. I love dogs and dolphins, but pigs are complex emotional beings too. To answer your authenticity question, maybe it’s just that with a lot of privilege or economic freedom, with fewer responsibilities, you’re more likely to stumble carelessly into hypocrisy. Of course, these are all generalizations. As someone who grew up somewhere in the middle, the perspectives of extreme wealth and extreme poverty are both mysterious to me. We writers return again and again to the mysterious, don’t we?
RN: We do, I think. It’s hard for me to imagine a writer of SF who is not drawn to the mysterious. And I like here particularly how you draw on the connection to a common hypocrisy: The criticism of other cultures’ eating habits. It’s interesting the way people appear unable to actually see their own culture’s habits: It’s like a blank space inside their brain. During my years in Central Asia, it was always an obsession of Americans to point out that Central Asians were unsanitary because they “eat with their hands.” Which immediately seemed strange to me, as Americans eat with their hands constantly – pizza, French fries, sandwiches, burgers, chicken wings and fried chicken . . . the list of what Americans eat with their hands goes on and on, but they had never thought about it. And if you told them they eat with their hands, they would say, “but they eat greasy things with their hands (meaning plov/pilav). It’s hard to even respond to someone who says that, when they eat fried chicken and French fries with their hands.
I want to turn here to some of the descriptive power of the story. I love the line “Smart vapor makes flickering palaces of the suites bordering the garden.” And there are so many other lines, beautifully evocative of a sense of place that is at once fantastically high tech and medieval / feudal. Can you talk a bit about what techniques you use as a writer to create and draw your readers into a world?
AD: Sure, one thing I was consciously trying to do in this story is bring dialogue to the forefront. It’s what I enjoy writing most, and I find when I let it flow where it wants, it’s good for a story. It also contributes to the screenwriting concept of “verticality,” which means no chunks of text that are too long, or at least variety in paragraph length, and a continual healthy mix of dialogue vs action vs description or exposition. With description or atmosphere setting, I tend to aim for concision. My general rule of thumb is if I’m getting bored, the reader will too. The moment I feel bored, I switch from action to dialogue or vice versa. This often shapes the story in significant ways. If I’m really in dialogue-zone, the characters start speaking on their own, and things get emergent!
RN: I love that way dialogue has of creating this sense, in the mind of a writer, of the characters as actual people; they become subject-positions that express their own desires and can move a story forward in unexpected ways. It is a curious form of emergence, for sure. Thanks for the reference to verticality, as well: that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole (I found a good description of the concept here). I do like the way other mediums (screenplay writing, films in general, comics, painting) can teach us techniques that strengthen our fiction writing, giving us tools and techniques we may not have otherwise had. Speaking of tools and techniques, you make a shift in this story from third person to second person in section 11, and you remain in that second person mode for the rest of the story. Can you tell us why you made that choice, and about how you think person affects the story?
I started writing in second person by accident, around the time Pin interfaces with the faculty library and spacetime itself. I may have been DMing that day, I’m not sure, and 2nd person present tense is indeed ‘dungeon master voice.’ It revitalized my interest in the story, which had been flagging. It also fit in that Pin’s own perspective is shifting at that point, becoming way more psychedelic, and I felt the 2nd person shift would help the reader experience this. That said, I was prepared to shift it back at Neil’s request. It wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, just an experiment, and I’m still not sure it worked.
RN: That’s an interesting connection I’d like to jump on: more and more, I run into writers in the genre who are active DMs. Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games were formational for me, and a central part of my childhood. My first short stories were really just visualizations of the worlds I was trying to create or play in in Dungeons and Dragons and other games. I don’t play role playing games anymore, but that’s more due to happenstance and my nomadic life than choice. Can you talk a bit about how role-playing fit into your life, and about how it informs your writing?
AD: A lot of my early writing was clumsily attempted novelization of D&D campaigns, or character backstories, or worldbuilding as a DM. Now that D&D is experiencing a renaissance and becoming entertainment in its own right (Critical Role for instance), a generation or two of writers are realizing just how formative roleplaying was for them. I spent much of my childhood drawing maps and creating almanacs for worlds that I never got around to DMing. My first series of novels, written in junior high, was based on a chaotic neutral thief named Finn the Snake. He became a sort of trickster figure and agent of chaos in a wider fantasy epic. In 2016 I got back into D&D, online at Roll20, and I find it keeps the creative juices flowing, promoting synergy between various creative endeavors, i.e. sketching, mapmaking, backstory development, and just thinking about character arcs in general. My story ‘Midstrathe Exploding’ (Analog March 2020, Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol.2: The Saga Anthology) started off as just a setting, a city undergoing a very slow-motion explosion. I struggled to come up with a character to explore this setting. Finally, I got back to basics. I recalled the many pickpockets I played as a kid (I was partial to rogues), and the story wrote itself.
RN: I was also partial to thieves. I think almost everyone I knew as a kid was. Nobody wanted to play the other characters, but someone had to. It was always an argument. And it’s interesting you should mention mapping: The maps in fantasy novels were incredibly influential for me, and I spent hours copying them and innovating maps of my own. I think that early practice in worldbuilding was formative for me: I was always interested in the backstory and the environment where things take place – so central to D&D – made me the kind of writer who constantly thinks about the why and the where of things. There were tons of other influences of course – comic books and film, for example, but role-playing games stand out for me as well. And so glad to hear “Midstrathe Exploding” will be appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol.2: The Saga Anthology. My short story “Father” (Asimov’s July/August 2020) will be in that anthology as well. Very happy to be sharing a table of contents with you!
I’d like to pivot to another aspect of your story: Having lived and worked a good deal in Central Asia, specifically in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as well as in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and in Russia itself, I have seen many people subjected to colonization (I will remind the reader that the now-former USSR was, in fact, an empire: it occupied, not coincidentally, nearly the exact territory of its predecessor, the Russian Empire, subjugating the same peoples). The people I met in Central Asia and elsewhere in the territory of the former USSR often have fine-grained, highly nuanced views of empire – not only of its drawbacks, but also of its benefits and opportunities.
You seem to express one of those points of view in the story, in the character of Pinander’s father: “Da always thanked his abyssal gods that Mother-of-Pearl system was entangled with the empire. He prayed for the empire at their home shrine. He prayed his son would sit the Exam and become an Imperial Factor. Pinander never prayed, but he studied the shrine’s myriad figurines. Among the abyssal gods were imperial figures, including a miniature Paragon Weald, more crudely represented than in the Crypt.” Can you share with us something of your own experiences with empire, and why you chose to represent this complicated sentiment here?
AD: I lived in Kazakhstan as well, and I’m familiar with the complex post-Soviet sentiment you’re talking about. I met people (usually older) who missed the Soviet days, and younger folks who were embracing the new. Now that you mention it, maybe that was at play subconsciously when I wrote Da’s scene. I’ve had other, starker experiences with colonization, but I’m not sure how much they came to bear on my story, which is about indoctrination and civil service, rather than say atrocities on a frontier. The Emanation’s imperial exam is inspired by Chinese history and Confucianism, but only in a general way. When concocting The Emanation, I was thinking of various historical empires, including the Roman and British, but in the end a lot of that didn’t come up, since the story’s scope is quite narrow, focused on Pin and the university campus. For a story of this length, I thought it was enough that we knew there was an exploitative empire in the background.
RN: I get the sense that there is a lot of backstory involved here, and that we will be seeing more of “The Emanation” from you. Is that the case? Is this a world you plan on returning to?
AD: I often start with a title, and one I’ve had for a while is ‘The Emanation and the Gaze.’ I imagine some kind of race between two empires, one traveling at lightspeed as information, the other opening wormholes (but spending time doing so). The Gaze, or the Imperial Gaze, is an empire name I’ve used before (The Abundance, F&SF May 2019) but I don’t think this Gaze would be the same. Wormholes would be its eyes, while the Emanation would be an empire as code, transmitting to distant alien artefacts, hacking them, making them produce physical imperial nodes. Now I just need a character, or better yet a pair of them, one from each empire, with romantic tension. Maybe time to return to the D&D well again! Do you ever create stories based entirely on love of a catchy title?
RN: That’s a very cool-sounding idea. I’m looking forward to seeing it take shape. As for your question: I think I have, but I’m not sure. For me, stories seem to kind of sit somewhere in the back of my brain, with a lot of nodes bouncing around – a piece of technology I want to explore, or a philosophical concept, a theme, maybe a title or an idea for some kind of image or scene. They sort of coalesce until they form a constellation of sorts, and then once I start writing, things become clearer. They get “emergent” as you say above – stories have a way of guiding themselves toward completion, most of the time.
Speaking of completion – this seems as good a place as any to bring this conversation to an end, at least for now. Thank you, again, for agreeing to take part in this project. I really appreciate all of the time and effort you put into this exchange. I hope it is the first of many.
AD: Me too. Thanks so much for including me, Ray. I enjoyed this back and forth. What a cool idea for an interview series! I also appreciate your insightful reading of my story, and what you just said about ideas coalescing, pre-writing, I totally get that. It’s almost like a sci-fi conceit meets a character, a setting, or other ideas and they reach a kind of critical mass that leads to writing. Anyway, we can discuss this more in future conversations. I hope I’ve been interesting, and thanks again!
For the second Better Dreaming conversation I got a chance to talk to Julie Nováková about her story, “The Ship Whisperer”, which originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (sharing a ToC, coincidentally, with my story “Do Not Forget Me” in that issue). We explore, along the way, many a science fiction rabbit hole. I came out of this conversation with a sense of wonder at Julie’s breadth of interest and thematic ambition, and with several additions to my personal reading list, which is already far too long . . .
RN: First of all, Julie, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. Better Dreaming is still a fledgling effort, and I appreciate your faith in the project. I think your story “The Ship Whisperer” is an excellent choice: there is certainly a lot to talk about here, in this story whose protagonist gets along better with a ship’s AI than with people. The closing line of the first paragraph is beautiful: “I might tell you my own story – the story of a broken mirror.” What I love about the line is how science fictional it is: the paragraph starts off by talking about one type of mirror, the “mundane” mirrors of our day-to-day world, and superstition about the breaking of mirrors, but later will we learn that the “broken mirror” being referred to is actually mirror neurons. Can you tell us a bit more about the hard science inspiration for the protagonist’s very specific way of being in the world?
JN: Sure! Mind you, I’m not a neuroscientist, just keep an interest in the field. My own background is in evolutionary biology. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons first discovered almost three decades ago in macaques in the brain’s frontal lobes, in the vicinity of neurons responsible for motor command (for instance controlling my hands’ movements as I type this). Mirror neurons, though, activate also when I watch another person typing (or pulling a lever, dribbling a ball, dancing… you get the picture). They “mirror” those movements, thus the naming. They probably help us learn new skills by imitating them without the need to actually physically perform the imitated task in real-time.
Since then, they have been discovered in multiple species including humans and in multiple brain areas, and widely studied. A number of studies suggest that they are involved in understanding the goals of others’ actions, contributing to empathy and the theory of mind (put simply, “putting yourself in another’s shoes”). That is their feature I used in “The Ship Whisperer”, whose protagonist Icarus Caille was born with a mirror neuron dysfunction, treated by neuronal growth factors and strengthening of selected pathways. Icarus can empathize with others easily – too easily for his own comfort, because it causes him pain to see and indirectly experience so much he doesn’t like in them. They, in turn, are often wary of him because the procedure he’s had rings too close to extensive neural and other modifications that are banned in their particular society – basically, they’re not keen on all aspects of transhumanism. That is why Icarus shuns the presence of people and prefers to spend time with the starship’s artificial intelligence.
But the real story of mirror neurons is much more convoluted (no neural network pun intended!). They have been popularly nicknamed “empathy neurons” and suffered from much hype, where their function has been either simplified as purely “empathizing”, or they have on the other hand been attributed a wide array of functions from empathy across language abilities to “social mimicry” and even aesthetic feeling. Again, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I like to at least skim the academic literature before potentially greatly embarrassing myself, and I’m wary of saying any of the above with certainty. The thing is, brains are complex and not easy to study, and especially with a relatively new direction of research like the mirror neurons, you’d be disappointed if you were looking for definitive answers and absolute scientific consensus. You rarely get these in science except the blatantly obvious, and it’s a good feature, because we really can say stone-solid conclusions about something with rarity. No methodology is perfect: imagine for instance a study whose participants were asked to watch someone grasp an object and also to grasp it themselves, all the while having their brain activity imaged. A class of neurons is observed to fire during both tasks. Voila, mirror neurons! But does it say anything about their role in understanding the goals of others’ actions? Wouldn’t we be making a great error attributing this function to them without a wider set of methodologies? Or imagine that we previously knew next to nothing about those neurons, only had the hypothesis that they would correspond to others’ and well as the subject’s movements. But we had no control situation, where we could discover for instance that they also fired when a drone moved in the subject’s field of view, or a bird flew there, or tree leaves were shuffled by the wind. Hey, they respond to any sort of movement! How could we have missed that at first? (No, mirror neurons don’t actually do that.)
I just made this example up and it’s intentionally taken ad absurdum, but hopefully it illustrates a bit that virtually any study necessarily has some kind of limitations, regardless of whether you’re looking at humans, animals, plants, microbes or the non-living world. There are always degrees of freedom. Things you either can’t account for, because it’s theoretically or practically impossible, or didn’t account for, because your methodology was found lacking (the made-up example), or we have yet to improve as they are very difficult (ever dove into the statistical analysis of fMRI data?), or we had no idea they would be important. I try to at least hint at these limitations in my stories, which often contain scientist characters.
So… what can we reliably say about mirror neurons? It’s reasonably safe to say that they play a substantial role in learning (albeit several specific mechanisms for that have been proposed and found some experimental support), perhaps empathy as well, but I wouldn’t call any of that solid. It’s a lively research topic that’s being addressed by new approaches all the time – now we can see studies imaging individual neurons and their activity. It’s brilliant and fascinating and we’ll see where it goes! (And I do welcome any real neuroscience expert to step in and correct me where I’ve almost certainly erred.)
RN: I really appreciate, above, your caution with science, and your stress on its complexity and uncertainty. I also use a good deal of neuroscience in my work (and I am also not a neuroscientist), and one of the most fascinating aspects of the field for me is its hypercomplexity. Unfortunately, that hypercomplexity also lends itself to a lot of nonsense interpretations of its findings – “neurological astrology,” I would call it, which is similar to the kind of “genetic astrology” that has led to so much simplistic popular interpretation of genes and their influence especially on human behavior. But I am also interested here in the way you use the mirror neurons as a metaphor, and I think that is a particular power of science fiction. I have said elsewhere that one of the keys to science fiction (I mean science fiction as a subset of speculative fiction) is that it uses science both in its “factual” sense and in its metaphorical senses. I think you do precisely this in your first paragraph. How do you see this relationship – science as “factual” and science as a metaphorical tool for storytelling?
JN: I must admit I do this mostly on the unconscious levels, where parallels find themselves, because they “fit” into the story. Where I do it intentionally is sometimes in science outreach, but rather in the opposite way – using the metaphorical sense first to convey facts, such as using the perilous journey of a fictitious interstellar spacecraft to get across what we know and assume about Proxima Centauri b, or illustrating facts about Venus by fragments of pulp age stories (which shows that you don’t just need SF that “gets it right” to communicate science – sometimes exactly the opposite is convenient). I think that SF has an enormous potential as a tool of science outreach, which is why I’ve become leader of the “science-fictional outreach” project team at the European Astrobiology Institute. Our first major act was creating a freely available anthology of astrobiological SF accompanied by nonfiction, titled Strangest of All. I’m immensely grateful to the amazing authors who contributed their reprint stories, do hope that readers are finding my brand-new nonfiction pieces intriguing as well, and plan to follow up on this project with a print anthology of originals. If a few more bullet points are successfully ticked, we shall hear more about it this year and see it ideally in early 2022.
RN: I downloaded the anthology and am looking forward to it – although I have to say I’m not sure how happy I am about having yet another intriguing book added to my already intimidating reading list . . .
Seriously though, I agree that SF does not need to necessarily “get it right” to communicate science – or perhaps more exactly, to be used as a tool to get people interested in scientific thinking. And even “predictive” SF, which is truly aiming at anticipating real developments in technology, etc. cannot possibly hope to be correct much of the time. I’m very suspicious of the idea of SF as “predictive,” and I mostly view essays about how “right” or “wrong” different SF stories were about the future as a juvenile misreading of the genre, or “genre policing.”
On the other hand, books like New Light Trough Old Windows, by Stephen Webb, which uses older SF stories to demonstrate concepts such as cryptozoology, transmogrification, etc. are fascinating – and I find them inspiring. My story “Año Nuevo”, which is coming up in Asimov’s, was in fact inspired by reading Stephen Webb’s nonfiction explication of one of the stories in Windows. So I look forward to reading Strangest of All, and hope the new print anthology works out as well.
JN: Thank you! I’m also wary of treating SF as “predictive”; adjectives such as “inspiring”, “thought-provoking”, “warning” or “exploring” stick much closer to the subject in my opinion. We need stories trying to anticipate real advancements and their impacts, but rather than simply predicting the future letting us explore its possibilities to better steer it ourselves. Novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for The Future, which I’ve recently started reading, are the type of important science fiction I mean by this.
Then of course there’s the question whether we “need” more optimistic, “we’ve managed to solve this” SF, or pessimistic, “we’ve screwed this up cardinally” SF for that. I like to think both are useful to elicit the right kind of response. Optimistic SF can perhaps lend us more traction, but also make us fall into the pit of “the future will bring solutions, it always works out somehow – why do something right now”. There’s often fear that pessimistic SF makes people think we can’t change the future enough, so why try at all, but I don’t think it has this kind of effect so frequently. On the contrary, it can activize from the opposite direction. So – which one to choose? Stick to Rowland or Watts? Well, both, of course. I’m always lousy at picking sides and view both directions as needed. And, naturally, I prefer the right blend of both – which, in my view, is what Robinson does perfectly.
RN: Returning to your story: The ship in “The Ship Whisperer” is named for Giordano Bruno, the cosmic pluralist Dominican friar who insisted the universe was infinite and could have no center. This naming is a wonderful piece of intertextuality, inviting the reader down a rabbit hole of speculation as to how the ship Giordano Bruno relates to the man, who was burned at the stake for heresy – related more to his hermetic occultism and religious heresies than his cosmological theories – in 1600. Why this man? What is it about him that drew you to name the ship after him?
JN: The first layer of the naming was rather straightforward and down-to-earth: “The shuttles’ quantum computers were less powerful than the ship’s by orders of magnitude. If Bruno was a human, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Galilei might be lizards. The idea was to name this mission’s vessels after famous astronomers. Of course, the starship ended up named after the only one of them who technically wasn’t an astronomer.” Which, in my experience, shows how naming intentions often end up.
The deeper layer, though, connects to Bruno’s speculations about the plurality of worlds and life on them. In a story that deals with humankind’s first contact with evidence of another civilization, and given what the found device does and where the characters end up (no spoilers), I found the naming quite apt.
RN: I definitely saw that connection, given Bruno’s speculations about a plurality of worlds. But I also think there may be a connection to a “plurality of worlds” in the story as a plurality of individual viewpoints – or, given the radical nature of some of those viewpoints (which include the posthuman) “umwelts.” The characters in the story have different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view and capacities for understanding. Was that sense of “plurality” also intended? Can you speak a bit about that?
JN: Of course. The main characters of the story – the ship whisperer Icarus Caille, Colonel Torres, astrophysicist Lakshmi Ranganatan and the ship Giordano Bruno – each hold a very different view of the cosmic impossibility they came to investigate. Each relies on their particular experience, assumptions and working of the mind. Icarus is fascinated and astonished by what they encountered… but very aware that not all others share his kind of curiosity:
“However, I was not so naïve to think that all of us viewed the black dwarf with the same joy, awe and fascination. Take Ranganatan: For all her genius, she is without imagination. She can follow protocols she understands by nature, astrophysics comes to her as easily as breathing. She sees a problem to solve. She has no idea what this discovery means for the human race. It's just another equation to her."
But that is still a good option. She's a good person – even if she's very detached by most humans' standards.
"And then Torres. He sees a potential weapon; nothing else. He's got imagination – just enough to imagine encapsulating the Chara system and accelerating time to render its civilization to dust in a matter of nanoseconds in our time frame. Or to imagine sending it into an uninhabitable universe if he could.”
The ship’s views of the investigated phenomenon remain partly obscured until the end, when Icarus learns about Giordano Bruno’s final action. Imagination, curiosity, fear, problem-solving, caring – it all enters into the question.
It’s interesting that you mention the concept of Umwelt. Having studied at a university with a strong Austro-German tradition of education (heritage from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), at a department with a strong focus on the methodology, history and philosophy of science, Jakob von Uexküll [the author of the concept] was practically required reading. I like playing with the concept, but of course I’m by far not alone in that, nor among the best. Much of speculative fiction does that, consciously or not. One of my favorite authors exploring it is Terry Pratchett. He was a genius (not just in this) in using various umwelts in his Discworld books. They feature Sergeant Angua (a werewolf, whose sense of smell and differences in human or wolf shape perception are brilliantly portrayed), the witches (who can do Borrowing, temporarily placing their mind in animals – the issues connected to that, the effect of the umwelt on the mind, are just spot-on, unlike in most other stories toying with such speculations), and other characters whose senses and consequently style of perception and cognition are not entirely human.
Though we’re mainly exploring SF here, I think it’s an important reminder that you can find interesting scientific concepts even in fantasy. I’m currently revising a recently finished science fantasy novel of mine that includes a golem character loosely based on Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s classic Ganymede, down to the name Radovan (same as in Karásek’s novel) as a wink to the readers. My Radovan can for instance sense the magnetic field, which becomes crucial to the plot, and has extremely acute hearing with absolute pitch, but possesses no sense of smell. It’s also fun to include real-world figures – biologists Emanuel Rádl and the above-mentioned Jakob von Uexküll, art supporter and aristocrat Harry Kessler, and in passing physicists such as Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner and authors like Karásek himself and Gustav Meyrink – in the book, which takes place in the early 20th century. It allowed me to create a fantasy world that’s nevertheless strongly based on ours, including its history and science, and, well, plurality of worlds will play a role too…
RN: You definitely have me intrigued about the novel – seeing Jakob von Uexküll as a character is enough reason for me to read it. And I should mention that, while this particular set of conversations is (for now) focused on SF, I – like you – certainly don’t buy into the hierarchical binary that places fantasy at some lower level from SF: I think fantasy done well is just as powerful as SF. As is horror done well, or any other genre at its best. I want to make that clear. SF just has a set of affordances that differs from that of fantasy, horror, or mainstream fiction, or the historical novel or the essay. I don’t perceive any genre as superior to others, and I think there is also a great deal of productive overlap between all of them, with some of the most interesting writing occurring in the interstices. But in this particular set of dialogues, I’m interested in exploring the particular affordances of science fiction. I think the conversations will gain more coherence from that narrowed focus.
Another question for you: the particularity of your protagonist’s mind is one of the strengths of this work. The protagonist comes off initially as introverted, with stilted interactions with people, and an easy assumption to make initially is that this introversion comes from some level of Autism Spectrum Condition. But we learn that in fact, it is an oversensitivity to people’s emotions (and intentions) that leads to this introversion. I love this idea. My mother has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition, and it has always occurred to me that “The Spectrum” should be thought of as including all of us – a very long line segment along which can be located all levels of connectedness to the emotions of others, with what is thought of in today’s psychology as “The Spectrum” a smaller segment along that line. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for your protagonist’s oversensitivity?
JN: Of course. I have always been interested in the workings of the mind, its substrate and its inextricable connection to the body (the senses, the gut, the microbiome…). As to the specific example of Icarus, I guess my starting point was myself. I have always responded to people’s emotions more on the analytical level (such as reasoning “Oh, they lost their beloved pet. They must be devastated. I need to be sensitive, gently comfort them and offer to help with anything they might need.”, but not feeling their sadness myself). It works, it’s completely natural for me, the responses are appropriate and I don’t feel constrained in my social life in any way, but I have always had to use imagination to conjure the idea of feeling someone else’s emotion, sort of catching it from them. Only rarely do I perceive it as a drawback. Once, a friend of mine had a potential complication in pregnancy while we were traveling with her and her husband. They went to the hospital for a checkup and I stayed in the rented flat. I couldn’t do anything for them – there was no reason for me to come with them, I would only get in the way, and so far there was also no need for me to bring them anything. I opened my laptop and stared at it, knowing that I should be more worried. I was worried, but it was my emotion, certainly nowhere near as strong as theirs, and with it, I would be able to get on with working. There was no sense in fretting about, crying, biting my lip, compulsively cleaning, whatever one might imagine someone with a stronger emotional response might do. It would help nothing. I could do absolutely nothing to help for the time being and greater fear would definitely not help anything, whereas productive work would bridge the time from now to whenever I could potentially help, so why did I feel compelled to be beside myself with worry and guilty at not being so?
In the end, everything was fine and we could continue the holiday, but after that I decided to avoid this kind of response in the future. If the next time something like that happens, I’m beside myself with worry, so be it. If I’m again worried but well able to get something helpful in other ways done in the meantime, so be it and why feel guilty about it? I care differently than most people probably do, but caring it is, and being more analytical about it can be an advantage (for instance in adopting anti-pandemic measures, as I found when I shunned all social contact outside the immediate family, and even that very carefully, while a deeply emotionally caring, normal-feeling, equally intelligent and high-risk friend went to cafés).
I imagined Icarus having the opposite “problem”: feeling others’ emotions so well that he deeply disliked it.
I must confess that I often end up writing characters who are socially awkward, not well connected to others or choosing to avoid them, because they would connect too much. My characters often have some quirk or neuroatypicality, be it synesthesia (“mixing” of sensory inputs; induced synesthesia e.g. in “All The Smells of The World” [Analog 1-2/2019], “Étude for An Extraordinary Mind” [Futuristica, Vol. II anthology, podcasted by StarShipSofa] or “Dancing An Elegy, His Own” [Fantasy Scroll 2015]), prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces; e.g. in “Goal Invariance Under Radical Self-Modification” [Future SF Digest issue 6, March 2020] or my Czech SF trilogy Blíženci), or a severed corpus callosum (“A Mountain to Climb” [AVATARS Inc.]). I must point out again that I’m not a neuroscientist. However, I always try to do my research well before writing.
I have always wondered what it would be like to change my sensorium, perception or cognition in some way, and I can imagine that in writing. I experienced synesthesia twice, on both occasions olfactory-auditory when listening to music while on mild analgesics for headache or cold symptoms. What would it be like to have perfect pitch? Absolute recall? Extended senses? As it is, I’m just mildly augmented in a way many people are – I wear glasses in order to see clearly.
In my native Czech, I’m writing under a pseudonym a series of historical mystery novels whose protagonist has an extremely keen sense of smell, something for which he didn’t find much understanding in the early 20th century. It’s fun to write these stories, to give the readers a less usual “in-body experience” through the character and be able to make him slightly more modern and very quirky. I’ve translated one of the shorter pieces accompanying the novels into English, and I hope we’ll see it in print in the foreseeable future.
On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.
With one character I wrote, Doctor Irena Belova in “From So Complex A Beginning” [Analog 9-10/2019, reprinted in Forever 9/2020], I hinted at this disorder – but at the same time showed her as a successful and competent ecosystem engineer, albeit on a personal level she had difficulty connecting with people and trusting them (and the crew of Ariadne station did not make it any easier for her). Another character, writer and reluctant exorcist Paul Leppin in “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” [Samovar July 2020], was showing signs of paranoia for a very different medical reason – he suffered from late-stage syphilis, which is often accompanied by paranoia and mood swings. Leppin was an actual historical figure, and I can only hope I portrayed him (including his condition, which he had in real life) with accuracy and dignity, including his deep remorse over the death of his son. The point is, though, there are as many subtle variants of the “same” condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the “human” purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.
JN: I’m drawn to less than typical characters in others’ work, too. After all, some of the characters I could best relate to were Sherlock Holmes, Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: TNG, and Siri Keeton from Peter Watts’ Blindsight. Not that I were a genius detective, superintelligent android or particularly adept at “reading” others and making connections, but there is something in them that makes them easy to relate to for me. And given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession. Any job offers?
RN: There is so much to talk about here that I will have to control some of my curiosity: there are dozens of possible questions I could ask. However, I will limit myself to two:
The first question: you say above that “On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.” My natural father (I was adopted by my stepfather, and did not grow up in contact with my natural father, though I lived with him until I was three and met him later, as an adult) has paranoid schizophrenia, so mental health issues (I already mentioned my mother’s diagnosis above) concern me deeply. You say later: “there are as many subtle variants of the ‘same’ condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the ‘human’ purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.” I view this statement as a kind of ethics: the idea that science must work toward generalization for medical and scientific purposes, while attending to the fact that each individual is never defined just by a condition – or by any single aspect, as you go on to argue. Do you think this is a commitment SF should make as well – not to forget the absolutely unique and uncategorizable experience of the individual, whatever the broader themes it explores?
JN: I think literature in general is well-suited to do that, whether SF or not. Science fiction has the advantage of being able to emphasize it by creating new worlds and new types of characters (e.g. posthuman or alien). But the best fiction of any genre does that – and even some nonfiction, such as really good history books. When I was a grammar school student [US readers might not know the concept of grammar school or “Gymnasium” – no connection to gyms; it’s usually an 8-year school where you transfer around the age of 11 if you pass the exams, but also 4-year program that is basically high school for academically talented kids], I disliked history lessons, because they were so boring. The teacher typically sat and read to us from the textbook, and it all seemed just like an endless stream of dates, coronations and battles. It lacked both the individual experience and the broader connections. Only when I started reading history books for myself did I absolutely fall in love with history. The best ones combined individual stories and viewpoints with broader context.
RN: I think I had the luck to have good history teachers from the start, or perhaps I simply filled the gaps of the boring lectures in with my own daydreams about that it would be like to be there, to be those people at that time. I always found history fascinating, and I can’t remember the experience of being bored by it, inside the class or outside. But that’s a digression. So here's my second question: Above you say “given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession.” I like that idea of being a “strange generalist” – it’s a definition I think might work well for me as well, a writer with a formal education in semiotics and modern literature who works as a diplomat but maintains a lifelong interest in biology and biosemiotics, along with other sciences, hard and soft. I have said elsewhere that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. And that I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. Writing allows me to then use all of that energy for something productive, but it also just gives me an excuse to carry out the kinds of research projects I would be engaged in anyway. Do you think that in some way you and I, and many others in our field, are already “synthesists” using SF to structure our curiosity?
JN: That’s an interesting point! I think you’re mostly right, because in writing science fiction, we can connect various disciplines and convey them to the general audience, and yeah, it gives us the excuse to go down the rabbit hole chasing anything from the temperature range of pulsars and speed of pulsar wind all the way across sources of magnetic anomalies, the visual range of houseflies or triggers of musth in elephants to the working of German opera in Prague in the early 20th century!
RN: So many rabbit holes, so little time! Thank you for going down these particular rabbit holes with me. Although we’ve talked about so much, I really feel there is so much more to explore. We’ll have to pick up the conversation at another time. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing your future current projects come to life!
In this first conversation, I get a chance to talk to M.L. Clark about “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan,” originally published in Analog in April 2016. M.L. Clark was an obvious choice to start off this series: There is no writer I know of with a more ethically informed take on the genre and its possibilities. “Seven Ways” is a great place to start, allowing us a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging discussion I hope you enjoy.
RN: First of all, thank you for setting out on this experiment with me, and thank you for choosing “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” as the story you wanted me to read. It was fascinating, and there is plenty to talk about here: You wind a number of themes into this narrative. So, let’s get started.
I really like this passage: “Our cruise ship, the Nauta Sunrise, was a sleek, two-klicks-long number with all the amenities needed to pass an entire life in and out of stasis, waking solely to take in a new experience or view.” It crystallizes, for me, one of the themes of the story: the idea of exploitative tourism, of cultures that hold themselves in some way “superior” to other cultures regarding the traditions of those cultures with both fascination and contempt. A tour guide is summarized at another point as regarding the inhabitants of Yul-Katan as “endearing, if misguided” and there are many references, wound throughout the text, to observing and (mis)judging the cultures of others. Can you talk a little about that, and about your treatment of cultural misunderstanding in the story?
MLC: Great starting point. I’m glad this theme leapt out in the reading. I was aiming for something a little more sinister than “cultural misunderstanding”, but I also remember being apprehensive about pushing the point too stridently, which perhaps meant it came across too subtly instead. For me, cultural tourism is not a passive act, but rather an imposing of outsider expectations on specific spaces and their peoples. In consequence, the very traditions that many marginalized communities take pride in maintaining might have naturally transformed into something else over time, if not for that economic dependency on cultures in positions of greater power. My intention with this story was to take this concept to a grim conclusion: the idea that people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own—supposedly in the interest of “preserving” other ways of life, but really to keep others in subordinate roles, serving well as entertainment.
RN: I don’t think your point came across too subtly or too stridently: in fact I think it is well-stated and just balanced enough. I should clarify that when I say “cultural misunderstanding” I am not talking in my question about the world structure we find out about following the big reveal at the end, but rather about the many moments wound through the text of misapprehension/misunderstanding (and fears of being misunderstood) that occur between characters. Also – in my opinion “misunderstanding,” which might sound mild, is very serious – it leads, in all cases, to some level of dehumanization, and in some cases, to exploitation and death. Even when it does not have personal, willful intent, I believe it is a product of a structure that produces and underpins it. That is to say, I think we often “misunderstand” those things the structures we were born into and live in demand we misunderstand or constrain us from understanding. I also think we restrain ourselves from understanding other cultures in order to avoid placing stress on the weaker points in our own narratives of self – or more interestingly, on the weakest seams of false consciousness – but that’s a digression.
Instead, here’s a follow-up question: You say above that your “intention with this story was to take this concept to a grim conclusion: the idea that people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own—supposedly in the interest of ‘preserving’ other ways of life, but really to keep others in subordinate roles, serving well as entertainment.” I think you do that in this story: the “grim conclusion” is very clear. Is this “grim conclusion” that “people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own” something you believe is already occurring in our present world – that is, the mundane world of now – or is this concept a speculative lens you are casting on a set of tendencies you fear may be developing? How do you see it?
MLC: It's funny to revisit this story after having moved to Colombia, because its core argument has only been affirmed for me in recent firsthand experiences. For many Indigenous communities in Canada, Colombia, and even Panamá (where I spoke with displaced Emberá men just a couple months ago), the only sure pathway to economic participation is through the performance of one’s culture in ways that serve outsiders’ expectations. And yet, this performance can also entrench exploitative internal practices in the name of maintaining “tradition”—especially with respect to the women in these communities.
In Canada, when I was first forming this story, I was struck by how convoluted our mainstream discourse was around the immense number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Mainstream media didn’t know how to handle the fact that a significant number of perpetrators turned out to be Indigenous men—because in our small-minded, “blame the individual” approach to justice, this fact seemed to suggest an “internal” matter in lieu of a massive systemic nightmare.
Missing from that discourse, though—just as it is from the discourse for Indigenous communities with internal exploitation the world over—is how much these communities have been denied access to other ways of integrating heritage into the global economy. A much more life-affirming approach would be to centre Indigenous communities in education and policy-reform pathways that lead to a wider range of mainstream economic opportunities: in agriculture, natural-resource management, restorative-justice modelling, environmental sciences, and other fields of inquiry that Indigenous community leaders would be far better suited to naming for themselves.
In short, mainstream economies can eliminate the despair that leads to an entrenchment of brutal practices within marginalized communities, by providing the community members with greater agency to adapt their traditions inventively—but to do that, mainstream societies first have to be willing to give up commodifying other cultures for “edification” and entertainment.
RN: It’s certainly easier to blame the individual than it is to recognize or – even more – confront and change – structural inequalities in what I call “place time.” I find a bridge here between our ways of thinking about these issues. I’ll have to give a bit of background, though, on my “place-time” concept, which I’m pulling from another conversation:
Philip K. Dick had a simple, elegant definition of reality which I love: ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ I think this works on many levels: First of all there is the fact (yes, I take this as a fact) that things in the world exist, whether or not we perceive them: Mount Everest is there, in all its physicality, no matter what my set of beliefs is. Even if I did not know it was there, it would be real. It is real, as a thing, even in the absence of consciousness to perceive it. Everest exists in space-time. But there is another level here to reality: Human constructions are also reality. They are structures built up of ideology and traditions, laws. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They exist in place-time, the world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”
For me, these actualities are what define place-time. So, I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities . . . I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society – a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.
Here’s where I find it links to what you are saying: You said, above, that “In Canada, when I was first forming this story, I was struck by how convoluted our mainstream discourse was around the immense number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Mainstream media didn’t know how to handle the fact that a significant number of perpetrators turned out to be Indigenous men—because in our small-minded, ‘blame the individual’ approach to justice, this fact seemed to suggest an “internal” matter in lieu of a massive systemic nightmare.”
I agree with what you say, above, about our small-minded “blame the individual” approach to justice. A central question for me is, what is an individual, anyway? If I am “of” the world in which I exist, shaped by that place-time, what kind of freedom I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly – to me – the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce, and I would argue that this embeddedness and entanglement of “individuality” in place-time is something we need to hold centrally in mind when we speak of justice. Is that something you would agree with?
MLC: Oh, Ray, I agree so much with these sentiments that I wrote two novels since the publication of “Seven Ways” that explore the limits of personal culpability in relation to situational identity and social-contract theory. The first proved too bleak for agents, but that alt-history of Soviet Russia from the 1920s through 1940s (with a 1950s coda) follows three people so caught up in personal feelings of failure brought about by the systems they inhabit that all but one misses their chance to make better choices with what fleeting time they have left. The one I’m currently pitching to agents, a space-opera inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), likewise focusses on how every actor in a system is relentlessly shaped by factors outside its control—even and perhaps especially when striving to perfect the practice of moral agency on an individual level. (We’ll see how that one fares with the market!)
It’s no surprise, though, that both these books were inspired by Russian literature and its histories. I count myself deeply fortunate to have read widely from non-Western contexts, especially those in which the myth of absolute individual agency never stood a chance. Even when pitching stories to U.S.-based SF&F magazines that claim (and I think sincerely strive) to want a range of styles in the writing, I’ve noticed how poorly the work fares with certain venues whenever its characters lack at least aspirational-middle-class agency.Of course, Aliette de Bodard already made this point far better, in “The Fallacy of Agency: On Power, Community, and Erasure” (Uncanny, April 11, 2017).
Some may well argue that one of SF&F’s main goals is to be “escapist”, to imagine worlds with greater agency than the ones that we currently inhabit, but for me the best escapes are those that deal frankly with what it is we long to escape from in the first place—and which also make clear to what extent such an escape from our current social contract and “nature” is ever truly feasible.
RN: You have a narrator in this story whose gender identity is never revealed, being concealed behind the shield of the first-person narration. It’s a technique I’ve used myself, in several stories. But what really interests me is this passage: “Imbra caught me looking—the driftwood contours of his back, the sweat-drenched sinews of his neck. I didn’t mind being caught. I smiled and reclined on one of the larger specimen crates as he changed his mind about changing into something that stank less of phytoplankton. He hooked arms about me with his skinsuit half undone. . .” the scene continues, becoming an (interrupted) sex scene. This is on the first page of the narrative, and what it does, I think, is very interesting. (And by the way, “driftwood contours” is a beautiful metaphor).
There are many ways to read what you are doing here, but I’ll suggest a few possibilities: One is that you seem to be daring the reader to make a judgement about both the narrator's gender and sexuality – dangling a trap for those who are stuck in a hierarchical, binary way of thinking. Alternatively, you also seem to be inviting your reader to step through a door with you, to engage in a different way of thinking in which possibilities are left to linger, and the imagination does not need to “lock on” to definitions of gender and sexuality, resolving and shutting down the openness of the scene. Can you speak a bit about what you are doing here with this scene, and perhaps (if you are comfortable) about some of the less-than-ideal assumptions readers of the story may have made about your protagonist’s gender?
MLC: You’re absolutely right that I wanted the reader to choose their own adventure. For those reviewers who noticed the lack of pronouns, the experience ranged from confounding (because of how much gender and sexuality had been intertwined in their point of view) to straightforward (“oh, some sort of nonbinary character—moving on!”). For those who didn’t notice the lack of pronouns—or rather, who thought that the lover being male made our protagonist’s gender and sex obvious—the character was simply female from then on out, full stop.
But it’s funny how much intertextuality comes into play for any reader. When I was still publishing under “Maggie Clark”—a non-ideal choice from the outset—I would routinely have people assume that my science fiction was “about gender” in some way. Literally, whenever I was asked as an SF writer to “speak on” the genre, academics always assumed that I’d be talking about gendered—by which they meant “women’s”—themes.
Now, it’s true that all my characters are gendered (all our characters are!), but even the challenging discourses about masculinity that some of my works address were flying under the radar. After making the switch to M. L. Clark, that… stopped happening, and it was easier to re-centre discussion on the alternative justices and social-contract theory in my work.
Likewise, we writers also carry chips on our shoulders. Two years prior, I’d published a story in Analog, “We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You,” that was written in the style of longform journalism from the 2050s: a heartfelt piece following four female astronauts hurtling toward a male-populated Mars colony that Earth now knew had been irreparably damaged. The story was supposed to capture the insincerity of our infotainment media culture, by illustrating how ill-equipped it is to handle monumental tragedies. The story starts, though, with a reference to Les filles de roi, a major part of Canadian settler history in which France sends over a slew of women to sustain the colonies. And some of Analog’s readers, many fairly conservative in nature, posted about their distaste of “prostitutes” being glorified in the magazine.
I think seeing the reaction to that story’s historical opening informed my choices with respect to “Seven Ways”. One thing every author has to learn is that, once a piece has been published, they cannot control how people will interpret what’s on the page. However, if I give the rules of my universe upfront, as soon as possible, then I’ve done as much as I can to help the reader decide whether or not they want to continue with my tale.
RN: I have two questions (actually, I have dozens, but I will limit myself). The first is: You say above “When I was still publishing under ‘Maggie Clark’—a non-ideal choice from the outset—I would routinely have people assume that my science fiction was ‘about gender’ in some way. Literally, whenever I was asked as an SF writer to ‘speak on’ the genre, academics always assumed that I’d be talking about gendered—by which they meant ‘women’s’—themes.” This reminds me of a passing comment made by a professor of mine that since men are perceived to function in our culture as a “default” position, and women are the “other” position, in fact there is only one gender, in the dominant frame of thinking, because a cover-up has taken place: the male gender has been rendered “invisible,” its point of view the “default.” That’s a complicated statement, and very much embedded in a deconstructionist conversation about hierarchical binaries, but I hope you get where it is coming from, because it seems relevant here – in that there is this intertextual assumption (which I do not share, and I want to be clear I am engaging with the comment above and making no assumptions about your identity) that since you have/appeared to have the “other” identity you would be continually interested in talking about SF from an “other” perspective, while the “default” people get to just talk about whatever they like – that is, they enjoy the full range of discursive power and potential, while someone named “Maggie” is limited. And moreover, that your discourses about masculinity would go ignored. Can you talk a bit more about this?
MLC: Huge issues, aren’t they? I have an extremely nuanced position when it comes to gender in genre, because I unfortunately feel that a lot of feminized persons are also responsible for this “othering”, inasmuch as the core problem is a lack of good historiography—by which I mean, a lack of widespread recognition that we exist as part of a longstanding tradition of women writing the world. This is where having studied literary history helps a lot, because from my time in academia I’ve seen how contemporary women also perpetuate bad historiography by, say, only elevating female writers from other eras in relation to themes of femininity, role-subversion, and romance—even when those forebears were absolutely also writing incisive political commentary, or engaging in scientific and philosophical topics of a more expansive nature.
I’m not the first to make this point, of course: Eleanor Arnason, in a 2015 essay for Strange Horizons, “Me and Science Fiction: What Are We, Chopped Liver?”, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in the introductory essay for Women of Futures Past (2016), are among those who’ve recently expressed similar frustration over having to reinvent the wheel when it comes to genre historiography.
Why do we forget our history so often? In part, because it’s lucrative for writers to present themselves as “groundbreaking” on a personal level, and to promote themselves as rare, subversive commodities. Much as many Indigenous communities often find their traditions compressed into those performances that might best provide them with economic success, so too do our literary economies tacitly pigeonhole the performance of gender, on the writer’s end, because radicalizing the work through author-identity can help publishers market certain brands.
Here, too, though, we run into the same problem that mainstream Canadian media had with the reality of internal exploitation among Indigenous communities: The above statement about the commercialization of gender could very easily be taken as criticism of individual writers for following the path that best allows them to harmonize personal identity with literary success—when really, my critique lies with the socioeconomic system itself, for driving people to commodify their identities in order to succeed; and often despite the immense danger that comes with performing one’s identity in our current world.
This is part of why we saw so much anguish around Isabel Fall’s January 2020 Clarkesworld story: because some trans and nonbinary persons found the story deeply traumatizing—especially when others weaponized it against the trans and nonbinary community entirely—while other trans and nonbinary persons saw the story as an affirmation of their own, messier journeys through gender, and were crushed to see it removed.
I don’t bring my nonbinary status forward much, but I felt it was necessary, back in January, to speak in defense of many writers who felt afraid of ever writing about their own gender experiences, after witnessing how the rest of the marginalized community viewed similar stories as nothing but potential weapons against real-life safety and security; and of course, after how Fall had been compelled to out herself as trans to calm the waters at all. Such is one extremely dangerous extension of our literary economy’s commodification of personal identity—and yet, where is the better alternative? Where are the pathways that allow for other forms of thriving?
I want to be clear on one point, too, because some in the feminist sphere will accuse people like me of “hiding” behind gender-neutral initials for greater literary success… but I also refuse to be part of any lists, or answer any calls, that are predicated on gender, sex, or orientation—and in so doing, I know full well that within our current literary economy this means that I am routinely “losing out” on being able to leverage the radical act of being a feminized nonbinary queer person for specific market-shares.
However, because our culture often conflates personal choice with a condemnation of all other possible choices, I also cannot stress enough that I 100% support other people’s different views on this subject. To me, the stratification of literary calls along author-identity lines feels like falling down the rabbit-hole of Zeno’s paradox, when what I want is for us to build a culture where every single one of our 7.8 billion experiences of being human is treated as distinct. To others, though, hard-won experience has yielded the conclusion that short-term stratification through fractalized self-labelling is what we need to build a better world… and guess what? If that better world cannot contain multitudes—even highly contradictory activist multitudes!—without seeking to collapse them to the One True Way, then it’s not really a better world at all.
RN: I think your ethical commitments truly come through throughout this story, and I know you carry those over into your non-fiction essay work, which I would really invite readers to explore further. I respect your openness and searching, and how you share that with the world.
My second question: Above, you say “One thing every author has to learn is that, once a piece has been published, they cannot control how people will interpret what’s on the page. However, if I give the rules of my universe upfront, as soon as possible, then I’ve done as much as I can to help the reader decide whether or not they want to continue with my tale.” Can you talk a bit about what techniques you use to give those rules upfront?
MLC: Oh, this is so much easier than that last question! I need to begin by pointing out, though, that the idea of establishing rules at a story’s outset is a highly Anglo-Western concept, not present in a great many literary traditions. I needed to put aside my reliance on the idea that a story will establish coherent rules at the start when, say, reading Tlotlo Tsamaase’s The Silence of the Wilting Skin (2020), a Motswana tale of how colonialism degrades everything, and which routinely proposes ideas about the world that don’t hold for more than a chapter, at best.
But, lo! I write in an Anglo-Western tradition, and I strive to establish reading strategies for the work at the outset. My first rule, then, is not to write with a traditional opening “hook” if I can help it—because for me, a more gradual or complexly written introduction conveys my trust in the reader’s willingness to engage. (And, conversely, allows readers who expect to be “grabbed” by a flash-in-the-pan declaration to bounce to another story, if they so choose!) Likewise, if I want my world to be immersive, rather than one in which the reader can expect explanation of every facet along the way, I’ll make sure the opening reflects that. If the reader is supposed to suspect the narrator of bias, cause for suspicion can be found early on, too. And if I’m aiming for more of a philosophical final statement, I’ll make sure that the aesthetic is seamlessly interwoven throughout—even if only in offhand remarks until the bigger, more devastating reveals.
(This last component differs significantly from what you find, say, in a lot of Chinese science-fiction in recent translation: a story might truck along with a highly action-based rhythm for two-thirds, then put on the breaks for a massive chunk of exposition to explain the ending. Anglo-Western writers sometimes do this, too, but “didactic” writing has been so heavily stigmatized in our culture that only a few really get to use it to any great success.)
RN: I like what you say above about how “if I’m aiming for more of a philosophical final statement, I’ll make sure that the aesthetic is seamlessly interwoven throughout—even if only in offhand remarks until the bigger, more devastating reveals.” I think that is something that is done particularly well in “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” – I think the themes continually emerge from beneath the surface, like stepping-stones in a stream. It’s a real testament to craft.
There is a lovely passage where you describe the experience of Imbra, who lives out of his own time. “Imbra was in one sense hundreds of years old, having fought in the last Allegiance war and escaped in a lifepod cast adrift for generations. The temporal and cultural disconnects when he awoke could just as easily have made him bitter, obstinate. Instead they heightened his understanding of his own weaknesses.” As someone who has lived extensively outside of my own country, this really resonated with me – especially the idea of a heightening of the understanding of one’s own weaknesses being a kind of wisdom. I like also the ambivalence here – the way his culturotemporal dislocation is described as something that could go either way. Can you talk a little about this theme, which I see elsewhere in your story as well?
MLC: I’m so glad you enjoyed Imbra’s character, because I loved him so much I went back and wrote a prequel story, “Belly Up”, which was published in Analog’s July/August 2017 issue, and again in Neil Clarke’s year’s best anthology. This story is all about weakness: in three movements, we follow Imbra as he uses his vulnerability to survive in situations with escalating stakes. I never go so far to suggest that weakness is strength, though, because none of his escapes reflect a person thriving—and indeed, at the end, he still loses everything to save himself.
But “Belly Up” was also one of those stories I alluded to elsewhere in our chat: a work that uses an SF context to explore complex masculinities. I believe that our genre needs to think better about how to apply notions of rehabilitative and restorative justice to people (usually men) who transgress to unconscionable extremes. Some recent, retributive fictions in SF&F have certainly felt restorative to many readers, but to me they’re often replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor. My hope is that they’re mere stepping-stones to better dreaming down the line.
In any case, at that prequel’s outset, Imbra has been “declawed” as punishment for a crime, meaning that he no longer has the hormonal reactivity necessary to protect himself once he’s released from state custody. He’s literally put at the mercy of other people’s ability to control their own anger toward him for what he’s done. Now, this circumstance changes for Imbra after he wakes into the era of “Seven Ways”—but in all times and contexts, Imbra remains a person who has had to learn to lean into his fragility to survive. Really glad that this came through.
RN: It’s difficult not to digress into discussing “Belly Up” too much, after that explication. There’s so much to talk about there. But instead, I’d like to return to this point you make: “I believe that our genre needs to think better about how to apply notions of rehabilitative and restorative justice to people (usually men) who transgress to unconscionable extremes. Some recent, retributive fictions in SF&F have certainly felt restorative to many readers, but to me they’re often replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor. My hope is that they’re mere stepping-stones to better dreaming down the line.” How, exactly, do you think restorative justice can be applied by “our” genre? When you say “retributive fictions,” can you give us some examples of what you mean, and some examples of how you view them as “replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor?” Finally – are there good examples you have found yet of “better dreaming?”
MLC: I’m going to begin by reiterating that while I have strong personal views about justice in genre-writing, those views aren’t a condemnation of others for taking different approaches. Works like Brooke Bolander’s 2016 Nebula- and Hugo-nominated “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” and Alyssa Wong’s 2015 Nebula-winning “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” simply left me cold when they flattened their prey—men who hurt women—to two-dimensional figures deserving of unlimited torture. Those who found these stories empowering would argue that this was the point: to treat these toxic men the same way that similar in the real world treat victims. For me, though, this illustrates how our work often replicates instead of transcending trauma.
Similarly, N. K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (How Long Til Black Future Month? , 2018), which operates in critical response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (New Dimensions 3, 1973), tries to imagine a better utopia, messier but striving; and yet—in a way no different from mainstream SF&F franchises like Star Wars—the supposedly better land of Um-Helat can’t seem to arrive at restorative outcomes without first killing a man for having transgressed: “the only mercy possible”. Unlike “Omelas”, this tale doesn’t simply present its egregious societal underpinning for reader contemplation, but rather, works to assure us that this is the only way, then entreats us to stay and be a part of it.
We do have alternatives, though. John Chu’s “Probabilitea” (Uncanny, May/June 2019) grapples honestly and openly with the protagonist’s desire to use her powers to murder white supremacists… and then has her find a different solution. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) likewise offers redemption arcs that have to be earned—but which, along with solutions for the most heinous of criminals, don’t require the taking of further life. And of course, Star Trek at its Trekkiest sought better justice through the sheer act of holding different perspectives in tension. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds (trans. Ken Liu) all build on that principle wonderfully, by requiring their readers to experience a multitude of subject-positions when thinking about how best to build better societies. When Star Trek: Discovery returned to that narrative style in season three, by turning all the brutal and shock-value violence of the first two seasons into the foundation for discourses on trauma that allow for multiple approaches to healing… I felt hopeful. I think there is a lot that we’re already doing in SF&F to establish that vocabulary for “better dreaming” in the real world.
RN: As we discussed elsewhere, I have a hundred other questions I could ask you – you’ve given me a myriad of angles to consider further, but I’d like to end here, on this very positive note of your wish for “better dreaming” and all that entails for our genre. And with your permission, I’m going to steal that phrase, and use it as the title of this entire series of conversations. I certainly cannot think of a better one.
MLC: Thanks so much for this opportunity, Ray. What I enjoyed most about this experience was that you provided a way for the work to open into a fuller conversation about the cultures that surround text, creator, and reader alike. For me, this is the greatest honour that any story can achieve. I look forward to following the rest of the conversations in your series.
Next Month: Don’t miss Julie Nováková and our conversation about her story, “The Ship Whisperer”.