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.