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!
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