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!