RN: Phoenix, thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I am excited to talk to you about “Notes from the Laocoön Program”, and – having read it several times now -- I think the story will provide us with some wonderful avenues to explore.
It seems too good to be true that, a few months after we agreed to have this conversation, I found myself in the Vatican Museum in front of the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, confronted very forcefully with the connections between your story, the myth of Laocoön, and this powerful visual representation of that myth.
Before continuing, I want to warn the reader: there will certainly be spoilers, as Better Dreaming talks about whole stories, not about parts of them. Please do read the story first.
So, standing in front of this powerful statue, and thinking back about the story, two things come to me: first, that the story is so much about human agony – so well depicted in the story, so well depicted in the marble I am standing in front of – but then my mind moved away from agony to what I felt was the core of the story the first time I read it: rage. Rage in a tragic, rather than a melodramatic, sense. And I heard the first lines of The Iliad in my head (as translated by Robert Fagles, the version I am most familiar with):
Rage—goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
Feasts for the dogs and birds,
And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
There is a beautifully written opening sequence in your story that begins with the line, “The orbital module fails to detach and we ignite in the full-mouth kiss of the planet’s atmosphere, spinning with a velocity that pushes us to the black brink of unconsciousness. G-force grinds us into seats molded for our forms.” – and any close reader will immediately pick up on the strange metaphor “full-mouth kiss” of the planet’s atmosphere. An eroticism that seems out of place until you hit the first flashback, which tells the story of a kiss that never happened, and of the repression of homosexual desire (“anything can be controlled”) and we realize that much of what this story concerns is not space travel, but the repression, rage, and agony of the main character that drive him to space travel.
Can you talk a bit about the roots of this story for you, its relation to the Laocoön myth, and how (or if) you understand repression and rage as driving forces for your protagonist?
PA: First of all: thank you so much for inviting me to speak on your wonderful series, and for your kind and thoughtful reading of ‘Notes…’! I also want to shout-out Morris Allen, Metaphorosis’ brilliant editor, who saw the promise of this story. It’s one of my favorites and it really means a lot to have it out in the world, and to deep-dive into its genesis, here.
Those lines you quoted from ‘The Iliad’ made me shudder, especially ‘Great fighters’ souls/but made their bodies carrion.’ I’m obsessed with the idea of hope persisting in a place of abjection; I think that line speaks to the protagonist, Huxley, being ‘tasted’ in his orbital module, drained by the ferocity of his regret and the planet itself and still finding a kind of happiness at the end of the story, loping away, unrecognizable but euphoric.
I think, too, the physicality of Laocoön-rendered in that hyper-masculine sculpture-and the tragedy of being pinned in place but struggling to live, all fed into the story. I’ve always loved horror and I wanted to see if I could write a story in which, for the bulk of the narrative at least, the POV character is physically unable to move. Think ‘Gerald’s Game’: one of those stories I dearly wish I had thought of first!
From that structural ‘seed’, I thought about how I could write a ‘hard’ science fiction novel, and set about reading astronaut memoirs to get a feel for that life. I remember the process vividly. I was in California for a research trip, oh, about five or six years ago now, and I would sit in the grounds of the Huntington Library and read Chris Hadfield and Scott Kelly’s memoirs on lunch breaks away from the Octavia E. Butler papers. Hadfield’s was very informative but grew increasingly frustrating to read. No doubt it was a carefully curated account of his life-everything was great, nothing bad ever happened-but it became a bit ‘Stepford Astronaut’, if that makes sense. I started reading around or through his text: thinking about what he left out, what might not be said-particularly in relation to the other family members he talked about. Kelly’s book was *slightly* more warts’n’all (although, to continue the weird metaphor, that memoir, too, had remarkably clear skin…) One thing that struck me in both was how *fiercely* competitive the odds are of actually being selected to go into space as an astronaut in the first place - tech billionaires excepted. You have to be the top pilot in flight school, the highest graded engineering student, hit the optimal psychometric marks… in other words you have to be a highly intelligent, almost mono-manically driven yet psychologically stable individual. I found myself thinking about the ones who might not make it through the process-and then, pushing that idea to absurdity, thinking about a secret space program that *deliberately* selected flawed individuals, without their knowing about that criterion, to send to a sentient planet that was most interested in human weakness.
Oh! One last thing about this topic: from both memoirs I got the vivid impression of how remarkably fecund astronaut families seem to be! So many kids. Which is fine-absolutely nothing wrong with that-but I wondered about how those who didn’t have children, or even a partner, might feel in an environment in which friends, family and so on play such an important part in socializing astronauts. Hence the dinner scene in ‘Notes.’ Relatedly, I was interested to read recently about the very few openly LGBT astronauts in the NASA program at least. This article from last year is a decent (if basic) primer: History’s First Gay Astronaut. Why is STEM so straight? | by Kamna Kirti | The Collector | Medium
RN: I love what you said above about “the physicality of Laocoön-rendered in that hyper-masculine sculpture-and the tragedy of being pinned in place but struggling to live, all fed into the story. I’ve always loved horror and I wanted to see if I could write a story in which, for the bulk of the narrative at least, the POV character is physically unable to move.” – the pinning of the character in place really does give it a horrific quality, and also allows for this structure of feedback loops where we crawl forward slowly in present time while also moving backward into scenes of convincing realism, which brings me to a follow-up question: how do you assemble these memories for a character? Where do you feel you draw your material from most? I fully understand that this is asking you to look at a process that, for most of us, is very opaque.
PA: Thank you for the kind words! There’s something delicious and delightful about shuddering at a story in the safety of your [insert reading spot] here, so I’m glad ‘Notes…’ had that effect! Actually, just on that note of physicality (and TW: body dysmorphia here): I’ve always been called ‘skinny’ my entire life, and there was something really gross to me about a body being ‘drunk’ or ‘tasted’ away by something unstoppable—in this case, the planet. I guess, actually that that’s the beginning of an answer as to where I draw my material from.
Huxley was a really easy character to write for many reasons. Like (most? Some?) respectable 30-somethings, I’ve had my fair share of heartbreaks and regrets, and Huxley is someone who has chosen bitterness and anger around which to shape his personality. I’ve never been closeted, though—coming out fairly young, to then-cataclysmic family reaction, being thrown out of the house—and that’s something of a privileged position, I realize now. I don’t understand how someone can ‘hide’ themselves, and am in awe of those with the self-control to present that kind of barrier; Huxley, to me, responded by trying to be the very best he could be and excelling in every other aspect of his life. Part of the fun of writing is inhabiting people very different from your own self—and as an astrological Cancer I like to think I am particularly empathic/intuitive.
But Huxley’s relentless drive to succeed: THAT I can relate to, using that inner suspicion that ‘you are trash’ as a springboard to achieve more, and more, and more, throwing fuel onto that fire. I don’t think that’s as unhealthy as it sounds!! The great tragedy of Huxley’s story is that his hubris prevents him from seeing that he was ‘chosen’ for all the wrong reasons.
Memory-assemblage is a bit more tricky. Once I’ve figured out a character I have in mind a couple of ‘primal scenes’ (foundational memories) that may or may not feature in the narrative itself. Other scenes come about via playing in the text. I’m a bit of a pantser, and love it when characters surprise me in the writing of their stories.
RN: I admit I have never read any of the astronaut memoirs, though I have had Carryng the Fire by Michael Collins on my e-reader for a while now – fully intending to read it, but never quite getting around to it. I think I picked that one because he’s the “underdog” in a sense, of the Apollo missions. But your description of the genre rings true: when I think about the Apollo program and how the astronauts represented themselves / were represented to the public, the first image in my mind is this one:
It’s all about macho gasoline culture and exploration as a penetrative, acquisitive act. At the same time, what I love about this image is the way the rover fails to conform to this: The rover is clearly all about limitation, math, accommodation to a specific environment, a rejection of aesthetic fantasies of streamlining. The rover represents, to me, what is de-emphasized in the Apollo program: cooperation, commitment to a common goal, selfless compromise. On the one hand it reveals the lie of the image behind it – and on the other hand, placing the three men in their red, white, and blue Corvettes seems, to me, like a pathetic attempt to re-inscribe the muscle-car, test-pilot, phallic masculinity of space travel on the rover.
You say above “One thing that struck me in both was how *fiercely* competitive the odds are of actually being selected to go into space as an astronaut in the first place - tech billionaires excepted. You have to be the top pilot in flight school, the highest graded engineering student, hit the optimal psychometric marks… in other words you have to be a highly intelligent, almost mono-manically driven yet psychologically stable individual.” And that you wanted to push that idea to absurdity, “thinking about a secret space program that *deliberately* selected flawed individuals, without their knowing about that criterion, to send to a sentient planet that was most interested in human weakness.” I think you do that very successfully, but I saw something else as well: the protagonist of “Laocoön” seems, to me, like a “shadow self” of those original Apollo astronauts – like, in a way, the Picture of Dorian Gray” version of them – the repressed, violent, angry, resentful person lurking behind that mask of accomplishment and heroism. The force that, perhaps, enables that persona. I found myself thinking . . . in the end, aren’t all astronauts probably like this? At least in part?
Was that something you intended, or am I off base? Because I felt this was a fascinating critique of heteronormative culture’s self-image.
PA: That image is wild!! The rover looks like such a piece of shit! I love it. To me the image is more poignant than phallic; it underscores the fragility of the bodies relying on this tech in the harshest of environments. Same with the cars, to be honest. There’s a hubris at play that is fundamentally undone by the deathly nature of the endeavor all are undertaking. Don’t get me wrong: as much as I am in awe of the scientists, engineers and astronauts involved in space exploration, I’m terrified for all of their lives. One false equation, one wobbly screw, one computer glitch… That, to me, is horror. There’s that line of subtitles in the opening of the movie Gravity that reads ‘Life in space is impossible.’ I feel that, so much. To digress briefly: it’s a bit of a meme now but that movie is very influential on me; I saw it at the cinema, in 3D, with no idea what I was going into. It was an overwhelming experience and captures that theme of ‘hope in a situation of abjection’ that I talked about earlier.
I LOVE your reading of Huxley as a ‘shadow self’ of a successful astronaut. Honestly, you might be right; it speaks to what I mentioned earlier about the strength it takes to present an optimal self to the world—an ability I wish I had, honestly. I would be very surprised if astronauts are like this! I mean, I have no idea; I may as well be writing about dragons. I think it’s important as an author to not only accept but kind of lean into your weakness… I can only read the accounts of others and try and find stories in there, or at least something to say. To be honest that ‘something to say’ came first, and always does, before the story itself. I mean if you think about it the plot of ‘Notes…’ is pretty simple. The setting was more of a sandbox to say ‘Ok, let’s see how this character reacts, and let’s see how I can craft a satisfying narrative puzzle around him.’ Horribly, it’s a bit like using a magnifying glass to sear the little bodies of ants—and then when smoke appears, stop, trying to undo the harm you’ve caused to this fictional person, trying to see how they can have a happy ending even though they’ve been hurt very badly.
Regarding the last part of your question: I don’t really think I can say much about heteronormative culture’s self-image! Something like that is, I think, far too specific a thing to think about (for me) when writing. I don’t set out writing a story with a conscious goal like that in mind; if it happens along the way, then it happens. Coming from an academic background, I kind of resist over-determined readings of a text, both the analysis and creation of. My big struggle is and has been to not beat readers over the head with ‘a message!’ But I think, if you get it right, people will be able to read your work and find things in it that you didn’t even realize were there, or were consciously thinking about, which is always amazing. “The art ALWAYS transcends the artist!”
RN: It’s interesting you should mention “messages,” as this is something I was just talking about with a few friends of mine. One of them was asking how I felt about some of the blurbs for my first novel The Mountain in the Sea, which is coming out this fall. I said they were fine – but that every author probably has the same reaction when they see a summary or a review of their work – even a positive review: It seems wrong. It leaves something out. It feels reductive. And it occurred to me that the reason we feel that way is because fiction is non-reducible. It is thinking in a non-reductive form. If I wanted to deliver a message, I wouldn’t write fiction. I would simply tell someone what I think. I feel like you say a similar thing above when you state that “Coming from an academic background, I kind of resist over-determined readings of a text, both the analysis and creation of.” I’ll counter by saying that any good academic realizes that interpretation, poorly performed, is a reductive act.
Because reduction is not what fiction does: fiction (for me) is a way of working through the complexities of existence in the fully complex manner they deserve. Elsewhere I’ve said that stories are “machines for thinking” – and that, I think, comes to the point of it. You don’t build some complicated machine in order to say, “repression is destructive” or “repression can be a key motivator of success” – you build that machine in order to work through and critique an issue, in a way that does not seek to provide an answer, but might provide an angle, a lens, of clarity – or even further complication. I joke that if I had an overarching theme to my fiction it would be, “It’s more complicated than that.” But I’ll go even further and say, I think the point of all good fiction is that it’s more complicated than that.
All of that is to say that the last thing I think you are doing is clubbing anyone over the head with a message – but there is through-line in this story of critique, delivered via the main character’s, or repression and rage. It is one element of the story. I think it is compelling, watching him struggle, frozen in place as a planet feeds off of him, with the misplaced anger, repression and projections that brought him to that space. There is something truly horrifying about it, and I think the horror comes from your empathy as a writer with your character – an empathy that places us there with him. You do that so well. Is that empathy something that you come to naturally, do you think? Or a skill that you have had to build? And how do you express it in a story?
PA: Congratulations on your forthcoming novel! That’s so exciting.
I think you’re absolutely right about fiction being a non-reductive form. I’m querying a novel right now, and putting together the paragraph summary (and even a one-page synopsis) was maddening. Plus, I’m really bothered by the tween-ness of a lot of pitches I see. Talking of Huxley-esque hubris; I am Very Serious about My Craft, and want to produce Literature, and only send Goode and Profounde Thinges out into the world, so yelling FOUND FAMILY! QUEER ROMANCE! SENTIENT PLANETS! CANNIBAL SPACE GIANTS! on Twitter etc. makes me want to burn my entire manuscript in shame. What I really want to do is scream THIS IS A PROFOUND MEDITATION ON WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE DIASPORICALLY and so on, but earnestness isn’t really a thing online, and it’s not for me to decide whether what I write is ‘profound,’ anyway. I can hope it is, sure, but who knows? One recent published story I poured my heart and soul into, about queer disillusionment and hedonism, was dismissed by one reviewer thus: ‘the main character is self-absorbed and annoying’ and I was like, fair play! That’s your interpretation. It’s also kind of true, from one angle. Thankfully other folks had a very different reaction, and that’s ok, too. You know they say ‘never read your comments/reviews’? Well, I say (provided you’re in a good mental space): read ‘em all! It’s insightful and heartening at best, and humbling at worst. Your work might not have a ‘message’, but it will resonate with some people, and not with others.
(That was my attempt to wrench my rambling, ranty answer back on topic).
It’s definitely always ‘more complicated than that’; I think that’s a very wise theme to inform an approach to writing fiction. One of the problems I have with something like ‘cli-fi,’ for instance, is that it tends to produce a lot of what I call ‘this meeting could have been an email’ books: I.e. novels that would have been better off as a series of non-fiction essays about climate change, etc. They are informative, and worthy, but like you say may have been better relayed by a video message or essay from the author themselves. Does that make sense? Not to sound pretentious again (whoops, too late) but there needs to be something slippery about fiction, something evasive. Like the arches of Gothic architecture designed to draw one’s eyes heavenward and imagine something vaster than the structure: that’s what I think fiction should do. Gesture beyond itself to something huge.
To speak to your final comment: I think you have to have empathy with your characters as a writer. Otherwise you have to trick yourself into caring for these made-up people, which seems unhealthy on multiple levels! Also, if you don’t care about them then why should anyone else?
On that note, I’d like to ask a follow-up question: I’m actually really interested in hearing why you empathize with Huxley?
Maria Haskins and Vanessa Fogg both wrote really kind reviews of the story when it was first published, and I’m both surprised and delighted at how kindly they (and you!) reacted to the main character of ‘Notes.’ I think there’s something poignant and pathetic about Huxley, and something so limited about his own self-awareness that the reader is ‘invited in’ to complete his persona, acting as a kind of soul. Is that it? I also went hard into sentimentality at the end, with the firework drawn out-and transcribed-in his lover’s letter. Those moments are so satisfying to write; it’s so fun veering from horror to full-hearted, almost maudlin, emotion. But you have to earn it. I’m thinking now of the homophonic slip between earn/earnest but I’ll stop there! Maybe that answers the ‘how do you express empathy’ question.
Lastly: I do think empathy is naturally present to a lesser and greater degree in people. I’m big into astrology, and am a very intuitive astrological Cancer, like I mentioned earlier, so I can tell pretty quickly how someone is feeling when we’re together. Mystical silliness aside, people in real life tell you SO MUCH about themselves, all the time, if you look and listen carefully: how they dress, how they hold themselves, how they style themselves, the volume of their voice, where they look… not saying that all these things necessarily translate into writing a character, but you have to be aware of these kinds of little details you can sketch in to create a coherent textual construct that presents the illusion of a living person.
RN: You say above “One recent published story I poured my heart and soul into, about queer disillusionment and hedonism, was dismissed by one reviewer thus: ‘the main character is self-absorbed and annoying’ and I was like, fair play! That’s your interpretation. It’s also kind of true, from one angle. Thankfully other folks had a very different reaction, and that’s ok, too. You know they say ‘never read your comments/reviews’? Well, I say (provided you’re in a good mental space): read ‘em all! It’s insightful and heartening at best, and humbling at worst. Your work might not have a ‘message’, but it will resonate with some people, and not with others.”
I read that story, I think, “Dance, Macabre” – it was so good that I still think of it. I’ve heard the advice about not reading reviews, and I’ve heard the advice about not reading them, and I suppose I am a bit agnostic. Sometimes I read reviews, sometimes I don’t. If I identify that a reviewer is not actually doing what in my opinion a reviewer should be doing, I will stop reading those reviews. There was a website which, up until a few years ago, was reviewing almost all published short work in SF, and I think its reviews often did what that review does above – they missed the point completely, and instead were reviews about whether the story was good “for them.” Sounds fair enough, but in fact they hurt a lot of authors, and promoted a very narrow view of SF which was absolutely not inclusive of many voices.
I would argue that having an opinion isn’t actually the purpose of a quality review: the purpose of a quality review is, for me, to explore the work. To take it a part and see what it does, ask why it is doing that, examine how it works and within its own context whether it is good at doing what it is doing. “Dance, Macabre”, I would argue, is very good at doing what it is doing – and that patently isn’t making you like the main character, so what would be the point of saying you didn’t like a character you weren’t invited to like?
But that’s a digression. You asked me above why I emphasize with Huxley, and it’s a very good question. It’s not, in my opinion, that I personally identify with anything about the way he feels – I don’t much identify with him at all, on an emotional level. I avoid people like him in “real” life – I think they are dangerous and destructive, and should be given a wide berth. So that isn’t it. It is, I think, something else: his deeply flawed humanity. I feel for him because he is doubly trapped: trapped with a broken spine on a planet that is feeding off of him, and trapped as well in the feedback loops of his own rage. This has a tragic quality to it (which I referenced with the Iliad quote at the beginning). This classically tragic arc, and the very human details that shade its edges, are what draw me in as a reader. I think I feel a sense of connection and sympathy because he is very human, and we are built to feel empathy for other humans, though that capacity may be damaged in some of us. I hope that answers the question!
PA: Yes, definitely!
Thank you for the kind words about ‘Dance, Macabre.’ I’m very proud of that story. Yes: many people-even or especially well-established folks who really should know better-confuse their opinion with objective fact. I was particularly disappointed by responses to last year’s Clarke Award shortlist (for which I served as a judge): not because they disagreed with the shortlist, but because they framed that disagreement around dictating What Counts as Good Science Fiction. I think that’s why the reviews I’ve received so far haven’t affected me so much, because the negative ones all seem to be along the lines of ‘this story isn’t for me.’ Which is totally fine! On the other hand, if I were to receive a review that said something like ‘the prose is clunky/characterization is weak’ or something more tangible… then I’d be worried. I think this returns to my earlier point of being clear-eyed in assessing one’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses. To put it another way: if you’re your own harshest critic, and you know what you’re talking about, then no-one else can really get to you.
To return to the question of ‘reviews’: yes, bad ones can definitely narrow the field of SF. I think this speaks to editorial taste, too (see Vida Cruz’s excellent recent article on ‘inactive protagonists,’ ‘We Are the Mountain’). One of the great things about a series like ‘Better Dreaming’ is that it makes space for the examination of a context of a work. Charles Payseur’s reviews do this really well, too. Funnily enough: I think I know exactly which review site you’re talking about…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Huxley. I’d definitely avoid someone like him in real life, too. I do love that quote; re-reading it, the last line about ‘the will of Zeus… moving towards its end’ is so poignant, and speaks to something I love to do in my writing: create these furious, tightly-wound characters that by the end of the narrative have relinquished their sense of control, almost gratefully, to something larger than themselves. It’s an acceptance, of a kind.
RN: You say above that “There’s a hubris at play that is fundamentally undone by the deathly nature of the endeavor all are undertaking. Don’t get me wrong: as much as I am in awe of the scientists, engineers and astronauts involved in space exploration, I’m terrified for all of their lives. One false equation, one wobbly screw, one computer glitch… That, to me, is horror.” – I agree with this.
Interestingly enough, I was listening recently to the podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, and the astronauts so clearly understand exactly what you said. They don’t come off as the macho images projected of them to service popular culture: they come off as thoughtful, reserved, deeply committed team players who know their lives are relying on those little details – as proved by the Apollo I tragedy. I’m reminded, in some ways, of the Amundsen-Scott Expeditions to the South Pole. Scott had this wonderful sense of daring-do and improvisation that got him and his companions killed. Amundsen, on the other hand, was a meticulous planner and calculator – so meticulous that, a hundred years after his expedition, the gas cannisters in his unused caches were found still full.
Yet popular culture still seems tilted toward the romantic, the swashbuckling, the doomed. And that’s kind of what Huxley is, deconstructed. I feel a deep empathy for him as a reader – he seems like the ultimate realization, in a sense, of imposter syndrome – in the end he wasn’t good enough and that is why he was chosen. It’s deeply chilling. That imposter syndrome brings me back full circle to Huxley’s concealment of his sexuality. Huxley says of Brian: “You would never call yourself that, would never define yourself by your most intimate desires. You are just you.” Which is in sharp contrast with the mask Huxley chooses to wear in an effort not to be labeled.
You said above, “I’ve never been closeted, though—coming out fairly young, to then-cataclysmic family reaction, being thrown out of my house—and that’s something of a privileged position, I realize now. I don’t understand how someone can ‘hide’ themselves, and am in awe of those with the self-control to present that kind of barrier; Huxley, to me, responded by trying to be the very best he could be and excel in every other aspect of his life.”
As the son of a lesbian who closeted herself for decades, and was most certainly shaped by the experience of having to construct a barrier between her real self and the world in an effort not to be “labeled”, I can certainly affirm that the kind of hiding she had to do comes at an enormous cost. When my mother came out it was, in a sense, liberating – I finally understood why she had always been so angry. I would have been, too.
The link in one of your answers asks a good question: Why is STEM so straight? Why do you think it is? Does it have to do with labeling? With the public image astronauts had to perform? Or something else?
PA: I’ll have to check out that podcast! It sounds fantastic. Yes, it goes back to what you were saying about Huxley being a ‘shadow self’ of real-life astronauts; my instinct still tells me that you couldn’t survive as an astronaut holding that much anger. Hell, you can barely survive on Earth holding that much anger. There’s this calming sense of individual smallness that I feel is conveyed in many astronaut interviews, memories and such that seem to bring a peace that Huxley is entirely denied, as much as he is proud of the (sham) status of his position.
I LOVE your reading of Huxley as an embodiment of imposter syndrome, because it is difficult and chilling to admit, in certain situations, that ‘I am not good enough.’ Or at least: ‘I can be better.’ How does one respond to that awful question? Either by retreating into delusional and denial-which Huxley does-or by taking stock, doing a clear-eyed assessment of *you* as a person. But I think that’s why he’s so angry, though: NO delusion is perfect, however strong we try and make it. Deep down there is some part of us that knows that whole thing is a sham. That’s another word that keeps coming to me, now: ‘sham.’ I love that it’s one letter away from ‘shame.’ What can we do with so frightening a concept? It all comes down to being kind to ourselves-but also being fair to ourselves, and the two aren’t always synchronous processes.
Veering to your STEM questions: I’m not sure why STEM is so straight, or if it even is! At least it’s a presentation of that. I’m sure there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in STEM, and couldn’t possibly speak for an entire discipline. Some people genuinely aren’t interested in labeling, which is true, I guess. There’s that sense of ‘something bigger’ again; as someone who spends perhaps far too much time self-scrutinizing, which is exhausting, I imagine it’s very enjoyable to throw oneself into work that looks outward. Work like STEM stuff, or like… writing!
RN: There was something about that article on STEM that bothered me, and I realized after considering it for a bit what it was: the article neglects history. The somewhat clickbait title and its patently unfair question aside, there is actually a real, historical reason why you didn’t see LGBTQ+ astronauts until quite recently: they would not have been able to hold or obtain a security clearance, which every astronaut would have to be able to do. Until 1995, when Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12968, homosexuality was grounds for a denial of clearance. Before that date it would not have been possible to be an openly gay astronaut. And because it wasn’t possible until 1995, that leaves a lot of people who would have wanted to be an astronaut but knew they would not have withstood the scrutiny frozen out. And not just frozen out of being the one in space – possibly frozen out of the whole endeavor. Everyone involved in the space program at the higher levels would require clearance and be under scrutiny.
That has a lingering effect – think of all the people who chose to do something else, knowing they could not follow that path. There are likely many potential LGBTQ+ astronauts who are “missing” in the sense that they were turned away by a real restriction – on top of prejudice, and all the other things they faced, and moved on to something else.
So, while maybe we can’t answer the unfair question “Why is STEM so straight?” I think it is fair to say that STEM was absolutely straighter than it should have been, and therefore likely still straighter than it should be, and that this is directly related to both societal prejudice, which is changing but is not gone, and to legal strictures that only ceased to exist a generation ago.
You said above: “it is difficult and chilling to admit, in certain situations, that ‘I am not good enough.’ Or at least: ‘I can be better.’ How does one respond to that awful question? Either by retreating into delusional and denial-which Huxley does-or by taking stock, doing a clear-eyed assessment of *you* as a person. But I think that’s why he’s so angry, though: NO delusion is perfect, however strong we try and make it. Deep down there is some part of us that knows that whole thing is a ‘sham.’ That’s another word that keeps coming to me, now: sham. I love that it’s one letter away from ‘shame.’ What can we do with so frightening a concept? It all comes down to being kind to ourselves-but also being fair to ourselves, and the two aren’t always synchronous processes.”
I couldn’t agree more with the idea that overcoming the limitations of shame, and fighting off the tendency to retreat into delusion, comes down to being kind to ourselves (and also being fair to ourselves) but I would also posit that we need a world that is kinder and fairer – and we often don’t get that world. The other side of this story, beyond the internal struggle of Huxley, is that external struggle: the fact that he fights so hard not to be labeled is an expression of the danger he sees in being labeled – and it seems a very reasonable fear to have, in a world where labeling is done by people who hold power over your access to your desires – such as the desire to explore space, or just the desire to be free to love who you want without shame – and not have to live a sham existence. It seems to me – here and also in “Dance, Macabre” – that external pressures, and their distorting effects on personality, are also something you are deeply attentive to as a writer. Do you feel that is the case?
PA: Right! The article did strike me as a little over-simplified. Thank you for the additional shading and context.
Your answers here are so fascinating and take me back to what we were saying about the strength, and choice, to remain closeted; there are the external pressures, absolutely, from legal or other sociocultural spheres, but it’s the narrative cages we write for ourselves that I’m kind of obsessed with. As an illustration: I was never closeted, like I said, but for a long time I was very uneasy with calling myself ‘gay’ (let alone ‘queer,’ which came later). I would say things like ‘I don’t want to be known as a gay writer, just a writer,’ and insist on assimilation. It was an internalized homophobia, you might say. Yes, and: a desire to not be defined by one’s sexuality, which I think in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagined someone working at NASA who might be like: yes I am queer or whatever but I am one tiny speck in the universe, and I am devoting my life to that universe, and relinquishing a sense of self. Or at least going without.
To push that further: I am fascinated by marginalized folks who are perceived as ‘internal enemies’ by their own communities. Sayings like ‘we’re taking away your Gay Card’ and such. What does it mean to be a BAD member of a marginalized community, what kinds of harm does that person do to themselves and others, and how can they be rehabilitated or brought ‘back into the fold?’
The protagonists of ‘Notes’ and ‘Dance’ are different sides of the same coin; the man of the latter story is *certain* that he has lived a good life by the end of it, despite the horrified reactions of everyone around him. And to be so indulgent as to quote myself: ‘Who’s to say they lived better?’ I actually think it’s the personality that distorts the view of the external environment; again, how do you find hope in a place of abjection? Huxley, at the end of ‘Notes,’ finds peace in some way-although that ‘peace’ may look like monstrosity to someone else.
RN: I love that idea of a peace that may look like monstrosity to somebody else: there is a kind of courage there, to be monstrous and outside. It’s a concept that will stick with me, like so much else in this conversation. I really want to thank you for taking so much time and putting so much thought into these responses: I feel like we could go on like this for months – but this seems like as good a place as any to call at least a time out. I do hope, though, that this conversation continues, somewhere down the line. It’s been a pleasure.
PA: I agree! And likewise: you’ve been a brilliant conversation partner, and it’s been an honor to be able to talk about writing with you. Until next time!
It’s a real honor to speak to Tlotlo Tsamaase for this installment of Better Dreaming – her story “Behind Our Irises” is exactly the kind of short SF Better Dreaming was created for – packed with ideas, rich in symbolism, and fully engaged with the world of today. Better Dreaming isn’t intended to be a series of teases, a promotion of authors’ work, or anything like that: Better Dreaming aims to deepen the discourse around modern science fiction through close analysis and in-depth conversation. As such, it is a time-consuming labor of love for both myself and the writers I am engaging with. So I am deeply thankful of those willing to go on this journey with me.
RN: Tlotlo, I was absolutely stunned by this story. I think it’s brilliant, on many different levels. But one thing that really stands out for me is how you constructed this incredibly sophisticated conceit – of a corporation data-mining its own employees – that serves as a flexible metaphor for the exploration of colonialism in all its insidious complexity. It’s such an effective example of how a writer can use the tools of science fiction to turn a lens on our modern condition. Can you tell me a bit of how you developed this idea – where it sprang from initially, and how it grew into its final shape?
TT: Oh, thank you! I had this gem of an idea that I never got around to writing about regarding a surveillance system implanted in people’s minds. Then I started wondering what the ramifications of that would be, who would be in power to take advantage of that, and why would they do that, for what reasons, what’s their backstory? And I didn’t have the answers then so I shelved it for future use. I think the first time I started tinkling around with that idea was within the context of an abusive relationship in my story “ThoughtBox”, which was published by Clarkesworld, in which a man gifts his girlfriend a device so they can hear each other’s thoughts as a way to be closer; but the truth is it’s a control measure that allows him to keep tabs on her. So I’m keen on investigating or exploring how abusive systems may evolve with the advantageous use of technology, which is a bit sad because technology can have good purposes.
Secondly, I’d always wanted to write a piece that explored the insidious nature of some work places, to portray that the very standards and ethics they advertise to stand for are just a sham, but I also wanted to show how employees are abused and taken advantage off by their employers because of their socioeconomic status—they don’t have any option but to stay. Thirdly, I’d always wanted to write an expose about how some establishments use African cultures and other cultures as a product for their benefit with no regard or respect to the people involved, and how those people are basic tools and fodder for the system’s greed. But the idea felt too empty of genre and I didn’t know how the plot would work out; I suppose I explored it in a subtle manner in “The River of Night”, which touched a bit on sexual harassment which is a concerning topic in many establishments. When Wole Talabi invited me to write a story for Brittle Paper’s Africanfuturism anthology, I said yes and we had a chat about what I could write about. I remembered all these ideas and wondered if perhaps I could consolidate them into one story. And the summary I sent Talabi described it as a part-bionics story infused with work politics trampling over ethics, and what if offices could double up their profits by installing apps in their workers. His suggestions to emphasize this concept were quite helpful. At that point I knew there would be a horror element because I wonder a lot about villains when we read about them in media, the psychology that runs them—that what if they had a technology to get away with anything without being exposed by their victims, what kind of world would that be and how would it be? That’s how I attempted to begin to explore the answers in “Behind Our Irises.”
RN: I often tell people that, for me, I usually must have two or three ideas that merge into one to become a story. The “seeds” of storytelling, for me, always have to be hybrid. That sounds a bit like the process you describe above. Would you say this is usually the way you write? Or is every story different?
TT: Honestly, it varies. Sometimes, when I’m going about my day, or watching a film, documentary or even a music video, a lightbulb goes on for an idea I’d like to explore and that’s how a story starts. And it’s because I found something fascinating or inspiring about those works that triggers my creative need to interrogate them. And short stories are great fields for experimentation. Often, I note the idea down somewhere to revisit later when I need a story to beat out. Over time, the idea ferments in mind until one day it pours out organically. Sometimes, when I need to deliver a story, I forage for lines in deleted drafts of old works, a line that speaks differently when it’s isolated from the body of work, and based on that line, I have to follow other processes to build the story. Other times, it’s areas I wanted to explore, like speaking to our local folklore and myths. For example, when we were younger some elders would tell us that when we’re dreaming and we seeing a deceased relative or stranger on a train calling us to climb it, we shouldn’t or we’ll never wake up—it was such a visceral and frightening thing that I knew I wanted to write about but didn’t know how. But that’s literally how the Silence of the Wilting Skin started, from this line: “We have a train station that no one boards in our district. It’s decrepit and takes its passengers to and fro—somewhere. Somewhere no one wants to go.” It was a much bigger world than I expected as I thought it would end up as a short story; we absorb so much of the world and that’s what pours out of me onto the page. From this, I learned that some ideas refuse to be short stories, well, for now at least.
RN: Reading this I have such a strong sense of identification because you name two story “seeds” that are very prevalent in my own process: taking a line from another story, one that sometimes I abandoned, and using it as the seed for something else, and also what you call (and I love this phrase) a “creative need to interrogate” something you read or saw. I find that is so often the root of my inspiration.
Speaking of lines, in this story I loved this line in particular:
They are using our temporary hunger to lure us into something.
Set off in italics, it seems to cut to one of the core themes of the story: the way the temporary hunger of the main character and the other employees’ financial need is used to lure them into accepting the company’s invasion of their bodies and minds, and the resulting theft of what is most personal to them – including, it is implied, a grandmother’s recipe for chakalaka. This seems to me to be a fundamental strategy of colonialism – using a “temporary hunger” – often manufactured by the colonial power itself – as an opening to domination. Was that how you intended this line to read?
TT: Ahh, it’s so lovely to hear that you also have a similar writing process! And, yes, definitely. That was my intention. Temporary hunger is a metaphor for many things; it refers to people who’ve been unemployed, are poverty-stricken, have no prior education and no generational wealth. The struggle to earn a living is difficult, so they’re starving to survive, and the obstacles in their lives drive them to give up what is priceless. But on the other side of the coin, you have others who are wealthy and are driven by other reasons to support this corruption, they already have their essentials covered, and now they hunger for certain wants which reinforces the colonial rule.
I’d read a lot about multinational companies establishing their subsidiaries in countries that were tax havens for them. Additional to that was how top fashion companies and other industries were outsourcing cheap labor from some African states and other countries. And you’d find the work conditions in these places intolerable. The factory workers work long hours, are paid very little and are abused by their own people to supply to these foreign companies. And this practice is repeated in many establishments. So the people who are really benefitting from this corruption is the colonial power and I suppose the locals who support them, but not really because the locals upholding this corruption doesn’t really benefit them or their country because they’re feeding these establishments from the mouths of their future generations, thereby disrupting local development. Again people can’t exactly quit their jobs. Living is very expensive, prices are going up, salaries are either going down or remaining stagnantly low that one can’t fund their living on a monthly basis, can’t save or invest in something to one day be free from the system; so this practice really binds peoples, forces them to say yes to things they wouldn’t agree to if they had the option, forces them to keep quiet, take abuse, because for some losing a job is worse than losing a life. It is because of that temporary hunger that starves them for life, starves them from ever being free, from ever gaining power or being independent, so they become lifelong slaves of the system.
RN: Can we talk a bit about “freedom?” Because the way you address it above reminds me a bit of an earlier Better Dreaming conversation I had, with M.L. Clark. I wonder what an individual is, or even if there is such a thing as an individual. 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.
Above we talk about temporary hunger – but I also think we are talking about (and so much of colonialism and capitalism seems to be about precisely exploiting this) the way in which individual action is constrained by reality – ad by reality, I mean real constraints created by capitalism and colonialism. As you say above: “people can’t exactly quit their jobs. Living is very expensive, prices are going up, salaries are either going down or remaining stagnantly low that one can’t fund their living on a monthly basis, can’t save or invest in something to one day be free from the system; so this practice really binds peoples, forces them to say yes to things they wouldn’t agree to if they had the option, forces them to keep quiet, take abuse, because for some losing a job is worse than losing a life.”
How do we transcend that position of reliance on a system that abuses us? Can we?
TT: Ahhh, this is a tough one to answer, and I can never truly gain a fixed answer regarding it because it’s quite complex. I don’t think one can be fully divorced from a system (but I do think it’s possible), especially from a system that influences their livelihood and their being. When I think about how to transcend that position of reliance on a system that abuses us I think about how the self evolves over time from birth, influenced by this system, by the ripple effect of history especially an abusive system that has saturated so many cultures and has been passed down through many generations, the things we’ve inherited from our ancestors that have become us, shaped us, our habits, our thinking patterns, etc., or influenced us in any number of ways, and there’s also the element of how our environment has also shaped us, the families we were born into, their belief systems that color us, people’s ideologies that color us, the toxicity that still spills from them unbeknownst to them; and you’re born from a transcendent place into a rigid system that defines you and forces you into a mold and I’m digressing—but in a way you wonder, if you weren’t dressed in all of this and if you were free of all this dressing/influence, who would be the real you? How do you undress yourself of all these elements when you’re so submerged in them? Because beneath all of this thick padding is you, the individual, a tiny light of you sealed behind this dressing of barriers that separate you from reaching yourself. Maybe or maybe not, it’s still an area I’m exploring. There are so many things at play—at a micro and macro level and even a spiritual level, things like corruption for example that reinforce systems like that, xenophobia, or toxic systems upheld in family settings—that almost remove that power from oneself, which lack support/community to transcend. You can work at it to transcend it, but what about the other people? How many of them are doing the work to change and change it? You can be divorced from this but still live with people on this planet who aren’t and who are violently forcing you back into a slave. But to detract from this pessimistic path I am taking, I do think it’s possible to transcend that.
RN: One of the many sophisticated ways in which “Behind Our Irises” addresses colonialism is summed up in the statement, made by Keaboka in the restroom, just before he is dragged off by company security – “. . . they sell us – we are the products –”.
There are many different ways to interpret this statement, which is true of both colonialism proper and post-colonial late capitalism, where products are adjusted to more and more sophisticated micro-markets. In one sense, the main character was created by the system the company thrives in: put in a desperate economic situation, she is forced to make a “choice” – which is not really a choice – to allow her body to be violated by the company’s “updates” – and in this way, her subjectivity is “produced” by the system. But the corporate system also data mines her and her colleagues, which enables them to fit their products, stolen from the minds of their employees, more closely to the market, “colonizing” space that is interior to cultures not their own – and space that is literally interior to the minds and bodies of their “employees.” Can you talk a bit more about these concepts, and how you developed your critique of them?
TT: With slavery Africans were priced and sold like products for gain by the oppressor, and now establishments have alternatives and nefarious way to employ that practice. And the language and narrative around that is very deceptive and elusive. African cultures and other cultures are treated like products in various ways, whether as sexual objects, labor, cultural concepts, etc. The commodification of culture drives some of these trends, such as fashion, hairstyles, music, etc. For example, during the pandemic and lockdowns (even before this period) a lot of people were speaking out against the abusive structure of companies, and how they’re exploited, and typically PR statements are thrown out to put off the fire. I remember following a thread where POC authors talked of their negative experiences working for some of these companies, and their testimonies revealed how they were discriminated and exploited. And these companies for quite some time had advertised themselves as an ally for people of color. So you find many varying scenarios like this, and it was something I was responding to in the story. But this is not to say the whole system mirrors this type of practice.
I follow a lot of true crime documentaries, and I always find it disturbing how serial killers over time finesse their crimes so as to not get caught; they need to feed their dark addictive hunger. By understanding the system and studying its weaknesses to find its loopholes, they come up with startling creative ways to get away with their crimes, but only for so long. And I found that synonymous with the villains in “Behind Our Irises,” because they are still mutilating your growth. So I was curious in exploring that villain in the story as a multinational company whose shareholders and directors were outed for sexual harassment, discrimination and exploitation, and because they were caught before, they’ll do anything to avoid it happening again because PR statements are ineffective, and the consequences of going to prison are high, as we’ve seen with some heavyweight industry people in this climate. Ultimately, they have this hunger and addiction they need to satiate, which replenishes racism, colonial rule or xenophobia, etc. Markets are competitive. Companies have to keep adjusting and revolutionizing their products for their consumers and to stay relevant; but for some, they finetune their practices as shortcuts so they don’t get caught. The technology they use allows them to control and exploit their employees both for profit and sexual pleasure, because for a very low price they’re able to use their employees to diversify their products to appeal to the trends and win awards and become more powerful. And as with some power systems, they target people who have weaknesses to use to their advantage. People they target don’t have the option to say no, and ultimately become colonized again whereby now the body is fully possessed and under their control—this system of colonization also becomes revolutionized and disturbingly “sophisticated” over time.
RN: Here is probably my shortest question in this conversation: Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with architecture, and how it relates to your writing practice?
TT: I studied architecture, and it was a culture shock because you’re learning a new language: design, creativity. Every semester, we’d be given a design brief, such as what we had to design, a cultural center for example, and a site where we’d locate our designs. We’d conduct site visits, perform detailed studies of its environment–the people, their movements, the activities, the existing ecosystem, the culture, the issues and benefits, etc. From this we’d have to come up with ideas and express them with conceptual models and drawings, and then develop that over time into a functional building, which is the most difficult thing. It was a very rigorous and challenging process to develop your voice through design. The fascinating thing about it is you could touch your idea, cut it up, eliminate some parts (kill your darlings, ha!), construct it with different materials to communicate something, manipulate it over and over in that creative factory until it became something. Sometimes, you’d have to scrap the whole thing and start again and again under suffocating deadlines and your breaking heart. Writing is quite similar, and I think I built my stamina for writing from studying architecture. Additionally, it was hammered into us in our design classes and presentations, that we can’t separate our designs from the setting, environment or culture else our project would be termed “floating designs” because you can’t tell where they belong, which I sometimes struggled with in writing. So when it comes to writing, it’s become a subconscious act to personalize the environment—mother earth, natural elements, and the issues terrorizing it—and to dig further into the culture. It forces you to see the world differently, which is great for conceptualizing stories. There was this saying one lecture used to quote to us that “Engineers know everything about one thing, and architects know something about everything.” They study things foreign to them to know them intimately so they can design them. And writers are quite similar, I think: they are the architects of storytelling.
RN: Again, I feel this strong sense of recognition, reading that response: I remember that I was once asked why I chose to study literature in university, and I said I studied it because in order to understand literature, you need to understand a bit of everything a book can touch upon: psychology, history, sociology, biology botany, and a hundred other fields – you need to, as it is put so well above, know “something about everything.”
I asked the question about architecture because – although I never studied it myself – I have always felt drawn to it, and I have often said that if I were not a writer, I would want to be an architect. I think for me this comes from a desire to shape something – a space for people to live in, something that improves their life, something that can ground their experience and help them to see differently. I do believe that architecture does that when it is good. And I believe it, as well, about writing.
While we were conducting this back-and-forth, “Behind Our Irises” won the 2021 Nommo Award for Best Short Story, sharing that honor with “Rat and Finch Are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo. How wonderful – well deserved, and a huge congratulations! Tlotlo, I want to thank you for taking so much of your time to join me in this conversation. It’s been a privilege to speak with you – and as I said a few times above, I read some of your answers with a deep sense of recognition. That’s been, really, one of the joys of this Better Dreaming – a feeling of commonality and community in the way we think about our craft and, often, about the world.
TT: Ahh, I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. That’s the best articulation I’ve seen so far about how writing/architecture can be good. And, actually, I initially wanted to study literature, but I had to settle to studying it own my own and taking up electives when I was studying architecture.
Thank you so much for the congratulations and for this lovely discussion, it’s been such a fun and intriguing experience and a huge honor to speak with you!
RN: In this edition of Better Dreaming I have the honor of talking with Jason Sanford about his excellent story “The Dust of Giant Radioactive Lizards” which is the cover story for the September/October 2021 edition of Asimov’s. This story, which features – among other things – kaiju, interdimensional travel, alien contact, and so many other science fiction tropes, is a fun romp through the genre’s history as well as a serious look at environmental concerns and how our personal histories entangle us. Jason, thank you for taking the time to do this, and to help support this fledgling project, which seeks to deepen the discourse around speculative fiction – something that I know you are also engaged in doing with your blog and your own activism.
A note of warning in advance to readers: Better Dreaming is a forum for discussing entire stories, so there are enormous spoilers ahead. Read the story first.
So – this story took me continually by surprise. I certainly did not expect it to go where it was headed, and there were several times the plot twisted with good effect. Can you tell me a bit about your writing process with “Dust” and in general?
JS: I’ve long been a fan of kaiju, having a number of Godzilla and other kaiju toys as a kid. I was also a big fan of the old Ultraman reruns, which I watched on cable on a giant old-style TV with a wooden case in my grandparent’s house. So a lot of this story emerged in bits and pieces from my memories.
I usually start a story when the first line or lines appear to me, that’s my inspiration for writing. For this story the words “Tessa Raij lay under the tin roof of her clapboard shelter and stared at the dead teenage girl standing before her” appeared to me and I immediately knew that was the opening line. From there I wrote a few hundred words to get a feel for the story. I then stopped and reflected on where the story might go. At that point I realized this was a monster story and all my old memories of kaiju clicked into place and I roughly plotted out the story.
With my short fiction I roughly know where I’m going with a story but still leave myself plenty of room to rework it as I write. That’s how I wrote “Dust.” With novel-length fiction I tend to do a lot more plot work before writing too much.
RN: One of the real pleasures of this series has been hearing how authors “get started” – some with a title, some with research – you with a first line. Given the (in my opinion) importance of those first lines, it’s a good place to start.
This is certainly a story about monsters, at many levels. Tessa is a monster, of sorts – she goes on a Godzilla-style rampage through a ruined Las Vegas. And a Godzilla-like figure makes a tenuous appearance in the story. Then there is Tessa’s own past, wound up as it is with the nostalgia of kaiju in popular culture. For her kaiju is a connection to her mother, as in this sequence:
“When the social worker dropped her off at age nine at Aunt Fancy’s door, all Tessa had in her backpack was single change of clothes, a plastic Godzilla toy, and a school notebook in which she and her mother had reviewed their favorite kaiju movies and shows.”
And we see how her grandmother, “Aunt Fancy” despises this attachment, and throws away her Godzilla toy and kaiju notebook – here, as well, I see Aunt Fancy as a monster, rampaging through Tessa’s past and smashing at the edifices of her nostalgia, and her connection to her mother.
So, many levels of monstrosity, from the “inhuman” treatment of others (Aunt Fancy’s treatment of Tessa) to the monstrous damage done to the environment (the nuclear testing outside of Las Vegas) to the kaiju monsters as literal realizations of the Latin concept of monstrum, which is ultimately derived from the verb moneo – to instruct, remind, warn, or foretell. Can you speak a bit about the figure of the monstrous in popular culture and in science fiction, and how you used it in “Dust”?
JS: We humans love our monsters. I mean, sure, we’re scared of the idea of monsters but we also need the fear of them in our lives. For most of humanity’s history on Earth, we used the idea of monsters as a way to – as you said – instruct, remind, warn, or foretell. If you were an early hominid living on a savanna or in a forest, there were many creatures that could kill you. So oral stories about monsters were a great way to teach and focus people on the nearby dangers.
In the 21st century humanity has mostly moved away from the threat of large animals killing us (yes, this can still happen but it’s extremely unlikely). Instead, the biggest risks to people are from fellow humans, or human-created catastrophes such as climate change and war. But the idea of monsters still resonates with us and you see this in our popular culture and in science fiction.
But I also see the idea of the monstrous as a way for many people to avoid understanding that we are the most dangerous and destructive creatures in today’s world. Sadly, the media and popular culture frequently use the idea of monsters to hide the fact that we are responsible for our worst sins. When someone does a horrific act such as a school shooting, the first instinct of many people is to label them a monster. Which is another way of implying that the people who do horrific acts aren’t truly human and thereby what they do doesn’t reflect on all of us. Depending on the circumstances in our lives, we all have the potential to be someone else’s monster. We ignore this truth at our own peril.
With “Dust” I wanted to play off the idea of monsters in both science fiction and pop culture while also reminding people that there are many different ways for what we call “monsters” to destroy or harm us. And of course, humanity is now facing the biggest monster in our history as a result of climate change and this is a monster entirely of our own creating.
RN: I was reminded when you mentioned school shootings and how the people who commit them are labeled monsters of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and his definition of inhumanity:
Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity
Monstrosity, it seems, could be defined similarly. And in a similar fashion, the labeling of an act as “inhuman” is a sleight of hand aimed at quarantining certain types of behavior – pretending that they are not human when in fact they are exclusively human.
One interesting aspect of this story is the way in which you are, in a sense, “upcycling” a science fiction/pop culture trope. Kaiju have a long history, and much has already been said about the way this set of monsters are connected on a broad level to the atomic anxieties of the Cold War, and on a specific level to the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But here, you update that: the kaiju come to represent, instead of the specific environmental/destructive trauma of the atomic age, a wider environmental/destructive trauma of the Anthropocene. It’s an interesting shift of the kaiju signifier to a wider signified, and it allows you to deliver a moral message – that human beings are not worthy of contact with other worlds if we are not able to protect our own world from our worst impulses.
So here, finally, is the question: how important to you is the moral message of a story? Often, when I see SF stories reviewed, the focus is mostly on plot, a little on character, but only rarely on thematic content – yet today’s SF writers are clearly concerned with reshaping – or let’s say “upcycling,” to stick with the environmental metaphor – SF tropes and placing them in the service of a social message. How important for you, as a writer, is that ethical/moral/social content in a story?
JS: For me the ethical/moral/social content in a story matters a great deal. This doesn’t mean I want my stories to be preachy or for those aspects of a story to be more important than the characters, plot, and prose. Instead, it’s more that I write about topics and situations which matter to me. This results in me focusing on stories that explore certain ethical, moral, or social situations.
I love how you describe upcycling or reshaping familiar science fiction tropes into something new. One of my occasional frustrations with SF is how some fans can be dismissive of new stories because they upcycle or reshape tropes that have previously been used in the genre. As if the original 1950s-era story about a gun that fires time-travelling bullets and can kill anyone in the past – to pull a SF idea out of thin air for my example – is the ultimate expression of that idea and any other stories about time-travelling bullets are inferior and unworthy.
But the upcycling or reshaping of SF tropes is about more than simply the ideas behind those tropes. It’s about expressing new visions through these tropes. It’s about bringing new perspectives to tropes that otherwise might become forgotten, and showing new generations of readers the power in these stories.
Science fiction as a genre will die if it only focuses on stories written decades before. So upcycling or reshaping familiar SF tropes is one of the ways the genre continually reinvents itself and stays relevant.
RN: I certainly agree with that idea that the upcycling or reshaping of familiar SF tropes is one of the ways that the genre reinvents itself. Again, something you do well here.
I feel like the flipside of that coin is the expansion of the genre by its inclusion of new perspectives and new ideas from outside of its own traditions. I find (though I am not, perhaps, the best authority, as my own SF reading is spotty, I am not an SF historian, and SF is not the majority of what I read at all) that there always seems to be a struggle to police the boundaries of science fiction. It’s been going on since the genre came into itself – a push and pull between people seeking (or simply writing) an expansion of what SF “means” and a defense by conservative forces of what it “ought” to be. I know this is true in other genres to an extent, but it seems particularly fraught in SF.
I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t take the “boundary” concept seriously – I think of SF simply as a set of tools, and of the “Science Fiction” genre as nothing more than a sub-genre of the larger speculative fiction genre, a largely commercial category emerging in a particular place-time. But I’m interested to hear what you make of all this policing – especially as I know you have been personally affected by it.
JS: I agree with you that the concept of science fiction as a genre should be seen as a set of tools for exploring our universe instead of hard and fast rules on what is and is not true SF. No matter how good your intentions, policing what is or is not true SF will never have a positive outcome. In fact, I believe this has held back the literary SF genre and also excluded many writers and readers from the genre.
Let’s be honest – science fiction as a genre is a marketing category, not a set of scientific rules and theories around what can and can not be called SF. As such, people decide what qualifies as SF and what doesn’t. I personally believe the set of tools we call SF are critical to understanding humanity at this point in time and to also exploring where we may go in the centuries to come. We live in a time of immense technological changes that have the potential to vastly rearrange what it means to be human. So I recommend people embrace an expansive view of SF in which to explore both ourselves and the worlds we live in.
If you’re nitpicking over whether a story qualifies as SF or not, perhaps you should consider if you’re actually failing to see the universe for all the stars blocking your vision.
RN: This is a story (look, readers – I warned you there would be spoilers – here comes a big one) with what I read as a happy ending – a return, a chance at redemption of a kind (certainly for the protagonist) and an inkling that there is a chance for humanity’s redemption as well. Lately there has been a lot of buzzing about science fiction being “too negative” or having “lost its sense of hope.” What do you think about that critique?
JS: I understand why SF might be perceived as being too negative or having lost its sense of hope. Humanity is facing some severe problems in the near future, including climate change, an increasing gap between the richest elites and everyone else, technologies that are undermining political and cultural norms around the world, and more.
One major function of science fiction is to warn people before it’s too late. With all the problems we’re facing it’s understandable that so much of SF might be negative. But I’m also an optimist at heart. While humanity may delay in dealing with problems, we usually rally and find solutions. So I do like SF stories that remember to include a little bit of hope.
RN: That’s a great place to wind this conversation up, I think – with that thought that “One major function of science fiction is to warn people before it’s too late.” In an earlier conversation in this series, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki said, “Sci-fi is supposed to predict the future, after all. Or prevent it.” – and as I have more and more of these conversations with my fellow writers, I find that to be a common theme – we see our work, on one level or another, as a kind of intervention. An effort at turning things in a better direction.
Thank you, Jason, for taking the time to have this conversation with me. I look forward to seeing where your work takes you. And congratulations on the publication of your novel Plague Birds – I wish it, and you, all possible success.
JS: I think what you said about science fiction being an intervention could apply to much of the entire fiction genre. While nothing is monolith, I think the best fictional stories – along with the best of all types are art – are interventions. An attempt to try and change the world for the better through the stories we tell.
I really enjoyed speaking with you about all this. Thanks for taking the time to do this and thanks also for the kind words about Plague Birds.
RN: First of all, Suzanne, thank you for taking the time to do this with me. I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with you for a long time. “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” is a great story to talk about. I also note that – once again – we shared a table of contents, with “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” being collected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection along with my story “Winter Timeshare”. Both those stories originally appeared in appeared in Asimov’s, where I am happy to be given a bit of imposter syndrome every time I find one of my stories alongside one of yours.
As usual, I warn readers that there will be plenty of spoilers: this series is a discussion of whole stories, and I highly recommend they first read the story, then this discussion.
So – let’s jump right in: I loved this story. It has a classic feel to it. I should explain what I mean by that, because it’s one of those phrases people throw off without being specific. I mean the following:
1) It has that feeling of being “core” planetary exploration hard science fiction, which makes it feel like it falls directly in the center of the genre’s traditions.
2) It has a perfect, balanced, very traditional narrative structure, with excellent pacing and some great moments of complication, re-complication, and revelation that drive the plot forward without sacrificing character. I feel like it could be used as an example in a class on pacing.
3) It feels biblical, as it deals with creation and the impact of creation, as well as with “abandonment” by one’s creators.
4) It has a tragic structure that, while leavened by humor, is perfectly executed, and immediately made me think of Greek tragedy.
That’s a lot to talk about, so let’s just start with a few questions. Where do you reach for our inspiration when building a planetary exploration story like “Number Thirty-Nine Skink”? Do you draw energy as a writer from within the genre, or do you find yourself looking outside of science fiction for that inspiration? This story has the feel of being a channeling of influences from so many stories past. I’d like to hear more about where it “came from,” so to speak. What was the seed?
And second: The story really is a master class in pacing and structure, with perfectly timed reveals, and a very strongly executed shuttling of scene between Kadey’s recollections and the current scene. How do you accomplish this? Are you aware of pacing and structure as you move through your first draft? Do you plan the story out beforehand? Or does it emerge during the writing process itself?
SP: Backing up for a moment, and in the interests of full disclosure, I want to confess that I truly love ludicrous analogies, and they're still my best way of expressing truth. So, I'm gonna start off with a whopper, which is that my process is rather like coating a ping pong ball in super-sticky glue and chucking it off a steep hillside. By the time it gets to the bottom, after bouncing off random rocks and trees and taking some unpredictably chaotic path down, it's accumulated lots of little bits of moss, bark, dirt, maybe a hapless bug or two, and I pick up that messy first draft and admire all the unexpected found stuff, decide what to keep and what to carefully pluck free of the glue and put back where it belongs, and then, voila! Story.
All of which is to say that I'm a "pantser" in writing parlance (ie, flying by the seat of) and tend to find the story as I go along. This suits the whims of my ADHD self, but part of it is also that I am a packrat when it comes to bits of information. There's almost nothing out there that I'm not at least a little bit interested in, and when it comes to science and art I'm still, in my fifties, a kid loose in a candy store far vaster than I could ever fully explore.
I have, as it happens, a degree in Fine Arts, specializing in 3D art, and in art we talk a lot about additive versus subtractive processes. In sculpture, those are fairly easy to distinguish: if you're carving a piece out of a hunk of wood or marble, you're working subtractively. If you build things up, you're working additively. Writing, I think, is very rarely strictly one or the other, but both are very much an excellent framework for thinking about story. From that sense, my writing is skewed heavily towards the additive as well.
Getting back to your question, I'd been reading an article about 3D printing of living cells, and the possibility of creating replacement organs and all sorts of medically interesting things, and it wasn't too far to jump from "can we print an ear?" to "can we print a lizard?"
(I really like lizards. And frogs. And most but not all--looking at you, earwigs--bugs.)
From there, the question for me became, who would print a lizard, and why? And of course, what are the ethics of doing so? The genre historically has talked a lot about terraforming in generally glorious, human-centric terms, where making a planet better for humans is portrayed as an uncomplicated good. More recent works have stepped back to more critically address the colonialistic aspects of those narratives, and how we valorize by analogy a lot of really destructive, often genocidal, real histories.
All of which makes it sound like I went into this story with deep motives, though it started off with just that lizard, being printed and brought to life, and then everything fell into place from there far more through serendipity and digging through the junk drawer of idea snippets than any kind of planning.
RN: I really love that ping-pong ball analogy. And I am always fascinated by the metaphors that other writers use to describe their processes. There is so much overlap I the way we, as writers, work – and also so much difference between us. I feel like I don’t have good insight into how my process works, as so much of it operates below the surface, but I would say it’s something like this: first I have to let the idea sort of gestate in the back of my brain. This involves just thinking about it, in a very passive way, sometimes for months, and letting other ideas, experiences, or concepts I may be considering at the time adhere to it and change its form, until I feel like it is in some sort of shape to start. Then I take it out and roll it down the hill.
So I seem to need some kind of contemplative time, when one idea becomes two or three, then all of them become one new, more complex idea, and only then do I want the rush of tossing that fledgling amalgam down the hill of actual writing, and seeing what adheres. I’ve garbled your own analogy even further, and I apologize to our readers for that, but what I am getting at is that there is a “pre-process” for me that is about gathering in lots of influence and things I am curious about, which I think is akin to what you are talking about, in that like you, I am a packrat when it comes to information. What I love about writing is it gives me a chance to actually do something with all that stuff, rather than just annoying people with it over dinner. Writing, for me, is a way of organizing my own experience in the world.
SP: Oh, yes! Very much so with the accretion. I've also likened story formation to dust accreting in space and when there's enough of it, when it hits a certain magical density, it can make a star. I don't always know what little bit will push an idea over into something workable, but when it happens, you absolutely feel it.
I tend to have a bunch of things in the works at once, at various stages, so I can sort of ignore a lot of the background processing stuff and let it get on with itself in the back of my mind and just check in periodically to see if it's ready for direct attention yet. Eventually something comes to a boil.
RN: I very much picked up on the anti-colonial aspect of the narrative. It was interesting to watch Kadey struggle with the implications of terraforming – from trying to make sure that new creations occupied a proper niche, then to making snap judgements about who should be allowed to survive, and finally to an acceptance of a far less interventionist role in the planet’s environment. Do you think this has parallels with your own ideas about human interventions in nature? Is there something you would want your reader to take away regarding our place on our own planet?
SP: I grew up in a middle-class, very white New England suburb with assorted deeply naive and frankly biased, unchallenged notions that did not survive leaving home and encountering the actual world in college and beyond (and whoooboy am I grateful for that, as cringe-worthy and rough as some of those rude awakenings were.) I suppose we all launch into the world with a certain set of information that, if we can't grow beyond it, revise and expand our understanding of other people (and ourselves), and re-evaluate our own give and take with the world, we are inevitably and needlessly destructive even if (or especially when) we can't see it. And I guess the larger lesson is that we always will be to some extent, but we also can work toward being better, toward trying to contribute more light than darkness to the world as we can, and that's the noble work of a lifetime.
Likewise, I think humanity, in fits and starts, and on the verge of catastrophic disaster, is starting to revise its own give and take with both the natural world, and with each other. It's imperfect, and unbalanced, and maybe we won't make it, but the number of people who understand the importance of coexisting less destructively with the natural world keeps increasing. And, hopefully, coexisting peacefully with each other. I sit here on land once belonging to the Nipmuc and Pocumtuc people, and the next town over is named after the guy who wiped a lot of them out by deliberately giving them blankets taken from people who had just died of smallpox. Our ideas about who deserves to survive have never been very generous.
It's one thing to look back and see the harm already done, another to see the harm being done right now. In a lot of ways Kadey embodies that moment of awful clarity.
RN: I love this line: “He apologized to me in those last semi-lucid days . . . as if I was more than just some machine crawling across an alien world knitting data into flesh. I wonder if, at the end, he had lost sight of my nature. Or have I? I have no one to ask.”
To me, there is an echo here (and excuse me for getting Biblical, but it is what immediately leapt to mind) of the opening line of the Gospel of John, and specifically to the concept of the “logos” or “word” of John 1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Which seems a bit too deep, but I’m going to bring it in here, because with Kadey and her “gourmet skink cookies” we have a much less certain creator, a much more contingent creator. And in the same way, we have the “logos” (really mistranslated as “word,” it should probably be “discourse” or “reason”) in the Bible, but in “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” it is reduced to the more prosaic sounding “data.” But the very idea of “knitting data into flesh” here is an act of creation akin to, but in a reduced form, the creations of Genesis. Kadey is a kind of minor god, “improving” upon the ecosphere that exists on the planet, engaging in sophisticated acts of creation that slot new lifeforms into niches. But as we discover later, Kadey is also an abandoned creation, intended to be destroyed but saved. And then we discover that Kadey has, in fact, re-created her savior – brought them back from the dead.
I think our culture is saturated with these repetitions of the creation myth, and perhaps nowhere more so than in science fiction. Can you talk a bit about Kadey’s position, both as creator and abandoned creation?
SP: I think it's very, very hard to get away from creation myths, for the reasons that you state--they permeate so much of our fiction and philosophies, both overtly and in more subtle, subliminal ways. And I think that we need these frameworks--culturally, and individually--as a way of delegating big picture thoughts so that we can go about our daily lives and routines without constantly tripping over our need for meaning and purpose. It's good because it also gives us a way of sharing ideas and values with each other, but it can also be a trap, if we start feeling like meaning and purpose have no immediate relevance to what we do.
So, okay, backing up because I think I got lost in the weeds there a bit. I am very fortunate that my day job is both something I'm good at, that I really enjoy doing, and something that serves an obvious higher purpose--science, and the promotion of women into STEM fields. I once interviewed at a company whose entire business model was basically fax spam. (This was obviously quite a long time ago.) I'm not sure the technical nitty gritty of what I do would have been much different, but from a personal moral perspective, the difference is enormous.
What Kadey does, what she is built for, is basic nitty gritty stuff. Analyze, adapt from a template, deploy, move on and start over. We do not build machinery with any notion of the bigger picture, of moral context, because it would serve no function. A sewing machine doesn't need to care if it's sewing wedding gowns or body bags. But, as our machinery becomes more sophisticated and more autonomous, is that still true? Theoretically there is human oversight, but humans are fallible at best, and there is a long history of us handing off such considerations upward--from the individual to the company, to the government, to the church--to people we hope have the better view to make moral decisions, or at least be there for us to point responsibility and blame at when everything goes wrong. We already are seeing how implicit biases unintentionally are replicated in our increasingly sophisticated technology, like the way facial recognition technology struggles with non-white faces. (The morality of that particular technology itself is a whole other discussion.)
Going back to analogies, we can kind of break things down as machine vs. operation vs. oversight. Our bodies are physical machines who carry out their biological functions along a set of parameters, while we as thinking individuals are operators of our bodies, but constrained by social and cultural and legal parameters imposed on us. I don't think we think too much about how we delegate back and forth between those components, because ultimately it's all the integrated experience of life. But good fiction picks these things apart.
The morality of subverting/supplanting the native ecosystem on an alien world is fully outside the scope of Kadey, but when she loses the last of her operators, she is aware enough of the limits and the context of her role to try to recreate that bridge between function and operator/oversight. In doing so, she unwittingly merges those roles--and the grief, loss, and conflict they inherently bring--into her own self. And ironically, she is in that position because her operator, Mike, made a choice based on sentimentality instead of dispassionate ethics, so it's the reunion of the two of them, who have essentially recreated each other, that also brings them back around to a place where they can understand the implications of what they have been doing.
That feels like a very long and possibly overly bloviated answer, and would erroneously suggest that these are the things I'm deliberately aiming for when I started the story, when mostly I do it by feel and instinct as I go.
RN: On the contrary, I think it is a very full answer, and succinct for the amount of material you cover. Besides, one of the purposes of Better Dreaming is to get away, as much as possible, from the soundbite answer and dig deeper. So, let’s dig!
It seems to me as if we have been transitioning for a very long time (several decades at least) from a culture that accepts universals, such as universal concepts of right and wrong, and that seeks to isolate the individual from its environment and contemplate them as a kind of “universal subject” to a culture that is increasingly aware of the connectedness of individuals in a web of culture, meaning, and power. I think we are also increasingly aware of the constraints placed upon the individual by their particular location in that web of meaning.
This story explores this issue quite powerfully: released from a functional role and elevated to a role in which she must decide not only on the efficacy of her actions but their moral integrity, she finds herself thrown into great doubt about what she is doing. As you point out above, there is now no-one for her to “point responsibility and blame at when everything goes wrong.” She is on her own, with a much greater degree of free choice. And that choice is liberating – she gains much more control over her interventions and makes creative decisions – but the lack of constraint from above on her possible choices is also a great burden. And it seems to me as if the burden of making those choices is what allows her to extend her intelligence, as well. She, in a sense, becomes truly conscious only when fully in control of her own decision making – when growing into the role of creator.
SP: That is the great irony, really, that the more aware we become of ourselves as individuals, the more aware we also become of the responsibilities that carries. Control comes with culpability.
I think that's the attraction of situations where you can cede control and thus blame to some other entity, be it a church, the state, a boss, etc.--the chance to absolve yourself of responsibility for your own choices, by giving others the power to make those choices for you. Self-determination can be brutal sometimes.
RN: I appreciate the reminder, at the end of your response above, that when you started the story you didn’t necessarily have any of this in mind, and that you worked by feel and instinct. I really think that’s the magic, though, of fiction. It’s not a tract, or a screed: One of the great things about fiction for me is that – and I have said this elsewhere -- writing is the building of complex rhetorical machines that change the way we see the world. A good piece of literature should alter the way we see our own world slightly, but forever. As writers, we build those machines bit by bit, through the process of writing itself. That’s the only way it can be done.
But to extend that thought, I don’t think writing, if it is good, works through reductive didacticism – it does it, instead, by creating a theater in which complex concepts play themselves out – not to resolution, but through increasing levels of complexity that engage the mind of the reader while leaving things at least partially unresolved. Good writing reveals complexity. It leaves the reader enriched, but not certain. It leaves them thinking. I really think this story does that – at least, it did that for me.
SP: There's a huge element of play for me in everything I write, both in the actual process of writing it, and in my overall sense of what I want the story to do when I'm done. Some things have to be resolved, but if a story is too tidy, too wrapped-up, it feels like a dead end when you're done with it, and I don't want to leave readers in that place. We should carry stuff with us out of a story experience, little bits that cling to our imagination, or even just a mood, like a satisfying walk in the woods where, when we return home, we find we've stuffed our pockets with interesting pebbles. I don't aspire towards writing a piece with a grand eureka moment, because that's such a personal thing for the reader and so easy to utterly miss with, but lots of little ahas and ooh neats that are easy to pocket for later contemplation.
RN: Can we talk a bit about influence? Who do you read? And I’m not specifically asking for people in the genre – I’m interested in your reading habits as a whole. Where do you find yourself pulling new ideas from? Who do you go to for craft? For pure wonder?
SP: The pandemic has really shifted my reading habits, at least insomuch as I'm finding the energy to read (or write) much at all. Prior to COVID, I tended to be reading things unlike whatever I was writing, so when working on space opera stuff I'd read a lot of hard SF or fantasy, and vice versa. Ideas and worldbuilding stuff can be sticky, and it's easier to step out of what I'm reading into my own stuff if there isn't much commonality between them. This was obviously made more complicated whenever I'm working on multiple pieces at once (which I usually am) across different genres, which sometimes means I'm also reading several books or stories at once that are likewise different. I also tend to read a lot of scientific stuff, mostly fairly general-audiences articles unless something grabs me, then I dive deeper into it.
One thing I've never had much of any tolerance for is stuff that is unremittingly grim. Maybe it's a function of having experienced a lot of tragedy in my own life, but I don't need misery as a reader, and I don't want to inflict misery on anyone else as a writer. I mean, dark stories? Sure. Tragic endings? Sure. But there has to be some glimmer, at the end, of hope, or of a triumph of principle or honor. Something of value that makes that journey worthwhile.
Since the pandemic I've found it difficult to maintain focus to the extent that I used to, and that's deeply upsetting if also not something unique to me. Sure, some of that is just the added weight of being solo parent to three kids who were suddenly home again all day long, and trying to manage aging parents from 2600 miles away, but it's also being alive at a time and in a place where it's suddenly very clear that an astounding number of people just don't care if others live or die, and the awful degradation of optimism that comes with that. And I don't know that I can function very long without optimism to sustain me. Anyhow, as a result of all that [waves arms wildly at ALL THAT, all around us] I've been reading lighter things, more shorter fiction, and just trying to muddle through until there isn't a constant layer of alarm and anxiety over everything. Because that is also something I don't want to seep into what I write, to pass on that vibe of existential crisis to my readers-- each of us has more than enough of that already all on our own. There has to be that spark of light.
RN: I completely agree, and that seems like a great place to end this conversation for now – on that idea that there had to be that spark of light. I’ve said elsewhere that, while I appreciate utopias and dystopias at times, what really interests me are heterotopias. I don’t feel like we will ever find our way out of all dilemmas, but we can work our way through the worst of them, and shove the world gradually into a better position, while we explore how to do better with the new problems that emerge.
I’ll end by saying this: I found this to be an uplifting story, and an uplifting conversation as well, and I think these kinds of exchanges help me feel better about all of the awfulness around us – they remind me that there are also people out there striving to make the world a better place. I consider you one of those people, and I’m glad to have had this opportunity to dig a little deeper into your work. I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation over the years.
SP: Thank you very much! It's been a great discussion, and it's interesting how many sort of spin-off thoughts I've had from your questions and thinking through my answers here--often about things I'd never tried to frame or articulate--that are now seeping into a couple of my current projects. I mean, that's really what it's about, right? Try. Evaluate. Raise the bar. Try again. And ultimately every story we write is not just a conversation between us and our readers, but also between us and other works we've read. For all that writing seems on the surface very solitary and discrete in nature, there are deep roots between all of us, and a big, messy, tangled, gloriously unpredictable conversation happening on multiple levels and fronts across the speculative fiction genre, and it's definitely been a pleasure to set down one little piece of that in a more tangible way it with you. And I look forward to bumping into you in more tables of contents.
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!