RN: First of all, Maria, thank you so much for agreeing to do this with me: these Better Dreaming conversations demand a real time commitment, and I want you to know I appreciate it. And thank you for choosing “Deepster Punks” as the story you want to talk about. There’s so much here to work with. I really enjoyed this story, which I think in some ways combines the best of the “old” science fiction and the “new” science fiction in one package. But I’ll return to that later (and deconstruct that false binary.)
This happens to be the first time I’ve discussed a story from an anthology for Better Dreaming. Can you start off by telling me a little about that? Strangely enough, I’ve also never submitted a story to an anthology call before. Did you have the story written already, or did you write it for A Punk Rock Future? How did all of this play out?
MH: I had been working on what was to become this story for a while before I submitted it to the A Punk Rock Future anthology, but I could never quite get a handle on how to tell it the way I wanted to tell it. I’d done several different rewrites but was never quite happy with any of them. Then, I saw the anthology call, and I immediately felt that my story could be a perfect fit, and that helped me focus and re-write the story one final time. Splitting up the timeline and going back and forth between past and present was one of the things I did in that final rewrite. The reasons why I felt this story would be a good fit for A Punk Rock Future are not easy to put into words. It’s not a story about punk rock or even music, but the main characters as I saw them in my head, had a definite punk rock vibe to them, and their music choices were always part of the story itself. I think that was also one of the things that the anthology call triggered for me, creatively: thinking about the characters as people who would be listening to punk rock while they worked and who would love to find and listen to the best and rawest tracks they could. I’ll always be hugely grateful for that anthology call for the way it crystallized the story in my head and provided the spark I needed to get things right.
RN: One of the things I love about this story is how it focuses on skilled “blue-collar” labor. I like this line in particular: "’You might have sold your bodies to the Company, and you might let them ship you from sea to sea, but they won't really take care of you. No one cares about us deepster punks, except other deepster punks. That's why we have to look out for each other. On every world. On every station. On every shift.’" I am reminded of the kinds of positive, skilled “blue-collar” loyalties that Susan Faludi writes about in Stiffed. I am also, though, reminded of past blue-collar jobs I’ve held where there is the sense of working together not for but rather despite the “Company.” And no matter what company it is, it’s always “the Company.” There’s always an awareness that the people we work for don’t have our best interests at heart – so we had better look out for one another. Can you talk a bit about this element of “DeepsterPunks”?
MH: That kind of blue-collar solidarity was absolutely one of the main things I wanted this story to be about right from the start. It’s one of the things I love about Ridley Scott’s Alien: that feeling of a group of people who are doing their jobs and who depend on each other and each other’s skills, while they’re in the “belly of the beast”. The beast in this case being both the company, and the system that puts the company in charge of their lives. I’ve always gravitated toward these kinds of stories and fictional worlds: stories about regular working people, whether the genre is fantasy or horror or science fiction. More specifically, one original inspiration for this story was a Swedish radio documentary about the deep-sea divers that helped Norway establish their oil fields in the North Sea (Vice covers some of that history in this article: https://www.vice.com/en/article/av4n5z/poineer-norway-north-sea-divers-skjoldbjrg-876). The story about what those divers went through, what they were put through by both the companies employing them and the Norwegian government, is gut wrenching. They were paid pretty well, and many of them were young and eager for glory and adventure and likely didn’t mind some danger when they were recruited. They were good at what they did and a lot of them loved living on the edge and being lauded for their skills and their toughness (both mental and physical). At the time, those divers were doing things no one had done before: diving deeper and in colder water, for longer, under extreme and unprecedented circumstances. Many of them died, many of them were damaged for life by what they went through. Things were done to them, and they were made to do things, that were totally experimental and put their lives at risk. Their work was crucial in establishing the tremendously profitable Norwegian oil industry, and even though they were paid well, the higher-ups showed little regard for their lives. In the documentary I listened to, several of the old divers talked about how they came to value their relationships with each other, with the other divers, above all else. They were often sent down in pairs to do their work, and one guy would stay in the dive bell while the other headed out to do whatever work had to be done on the sea floor. If anything went awry on the surface or below, the guy in the dive bell could choose to signal the crew up top that he needed to be brought up before the second guy had time to come back, essentially abandoning and killing his co-worker. He could also choose to wait for the other diver to come back so that they could both be brought to safety together. One comment one of the divers made was that you came to value the co-workers you knew would wait for you, and be leery of the guys you knew or suspected would not do so. I wanted to capture that feeling in my story, that feeling of us vs. them with the crews vs. the company, but I also wanted to capture how much these workers had to rely on each other, and how important that trust was to them. If you had doubts about a person and how they would act in a difficult situation, that would be a major problem because of the inherently dangerous nature of the work. The reality of what those divers went through is both exhilarating and devastating, and it was on my mind constantly as I wrote this story. I wanted to write about a group, a community of working people who live on the edge of what is physically and technologically possible and who have to rely on each other and their own skills in order to survive, because the company employing them never has their best interests at heart.
In general I just really like stories that are told from this kind of perspective. Like I said, it’s one of the things I love about Alien, and also Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. More recently, I’ve seen it captured really well in Suzanne Palmer’s Finder Chronicles.
RN: I love the fact that the story is, while science fiction, very much tied to concrete, present-day concerns here on Earth. One of the other things I love is the way the story takes place on Earth. Space is there, informing and enriching the story, but the action is entirely on this planet, and I feel like that rendering of the “space” element as peripheral is also powerful. You get a sense that these are Earth concerns, and not alienated from us. And I did get a strong sense of the influence of Alien here – not only in the gritty, working-stiff element, or in the “Us-vs.-The Company” sense, but also in the way gender is almost a throw-away: Who is male and who is female seems interchangeable, and that interchangeability seems (as it was in the Alien screenplay, though that was slightly marred by later filming decisions) entirely appropriate to this future. How much do you think about the gender of a character when writing a story? How do you perceive your use of gender here in “Deepster Punks”?
MH: There are a lot of girls and women in my stories, and that is something that has always been a pretty conscious choice on my part as a writer. I want to write women and girls who are at least as complex and as complicated as the women and girls I know from real life. In all my work I try to stick closely to that: to write people, including women, in a way that captures the many shades of motivations, demons, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and so on that I see in human beings in the world. In this story in particular, I wanted to write about a relationship that is really intimate which is something I don’t do very much in my fiction. I’ve written a lot more about sibling relationships and friendship than about romantic or sexual relationships, but for Deepster Punks, I really wanted the two main characters to be tied to each other on every level: as friends, as co-workers, as off-again/on-again lovers. And when I tried to imagine what kind of world and workplace Becca and Jacob were part of, I felt that in their work, to them, gender would be largely beside the point. It’s the skills and abilities, and the reliability, of each person that matters, and that’s how they connected to each other originally, and that’s the connection that forms the basis for their friendship and also their physical relationship. They can rely on each other, or they used to be able to rely on each other, anyway. So to answer the question, my default when I’m writing is to write women and girls and try to portray them in all their horror and glory, and never reduce them to some “idea” of what women and girls are “supposed” to be like. In “Deepster Punks”, the challenge I gave myself was to portray a relationship, the attraction and the connection, between these two people and while I knew early on that they would be Becca and Jacob, a woman and a man, their gender was less important to me than what kind of characters, what kind of people, they are. Beyond that, in my head as I wrote this, I sort of imagined the community of Deepster Punks as something of polyamorous community where people would hook up with whoever they worked with, if they liked each other enough, and if they were all so inclined. There are hints of that in the story, though I never went into much detail about it in the text.
RN: This is a great line from the story: “The pain sliced through me, so sharp and jagged I had to close my eyes. She'd been the best of us. Our mother-goddess, our patron saint of safety first, and now she was gone.” A lot of this story is also about leadership and mentoring, and the pain of losing not only a friend but also a mentor. Petra, the dead leader being spoken about in the quote above, really leaps from the page. Even though she is dead before the story opens, her presence is absolutely felt. Can you talk a bit about the creation of her character?
MH: Petra was absolutely central to this story and some early versions included scenes told from her POV. I wanted her to be older, like solidly into her 60s when she passes away, which is something I feel we always need more of in fiction: older people who are driving forces and have a real strong presence. Even Jacob and Becca are in their 40s-50s in Deepster Punks.
I think in a lot of workplaces or other organizations there are leader-types like Petra who are able to shape the culture and working climate in a workplace or a company or an organization, and they can have a real and lasting impact on the people they train and mentor as they pass through the ranks. I felt like Petra was definitely that kind of person, a person who tried to create a tightly knit, caring community inside a predatory system that did not value the workers. And she succeeded, at least to some extent. It was important for me to show that even inside this callous and cruel system ruled by governments and corporations, by greed and profit, there was a sense of community and comradeship, and that this is what made life bearable for the crews. I think humans are capable of treating each other terribly, but we are also capable of compassion and solidarity, and just like in the story, people often create their own communities and ways of helping each other within oppressive systems. Those communities can help people survive, even when those in power, and the political and economic system that underpins those in power, do not really care about the lives or wishes of ordinary people. And I think an important factor to create those kinds of communities, that kind of resistance, is people like Petra who take it upon themselves to teach and guide others and create an atmosphere where compassion and cooperation are valued even if that goes against the official laws and regulations.
RN: Above you say: “Petra was absolutely central to this story and some early versions included scenes told from her POV. I wanted her to be older, like solidly into her 60s when she passes away, which is something I feel we always need more of in fiction: older people who are driving forces and have a real strong presence. Even Jacob and Becca are in their 40s-50s in Deepster Punks.”
What is really striking to me is how, even as fiction writers themselves grow older, they often continue to write younger characters. My hypothesis would be that this has two general roots: one is the strong North American (since North America continues to dominate these markets) tendency toward valuing youth over age – a tendency that runs counter to other parts of the world. In much of the world, older people are considered wise, or experienced, or seasoned by life. In North America, however, they are often considered obsolete, are condescended to, and are relegated to invisibility.
The other root, it seems to me, is the bildungsroman model of fiction – the idea that the core stories we tell are essentially “coming of age” stories. I loved that, in this story, you push against both these molds, presenting middle-aged characters who grow and change. And in a skilled trade where apprenticeship is such a core part of everything, the idea of respect for seniority makes good sense. Do you have models in fiction of older characters that you admire? And can you speak bit about the importance of representing older characters?
MH: I think there is a really, really strong bias or trend or whatever you want to call it in fiction, both in books and stories and in movies and TV-shows, that interesting things happen to young people while older people, especially as old as 40-50+ (and even more so if they’re women), are bystanders or minor characters. In one way I understand why: I mean, I did a lot of adventurous things in my younger days I wouldn’t necessarily do now! However, as a writer I want to write older people who are as interesting, and contain all the complexities, as younger characters do because that is the reality I see all around me. It’s also a way to do interesting things with some tropes in genre fiction, to put older characters in situations and stories where the expectation might be that they should be younger. There are some great examples in SFF. Angela Slatter’s Mistress Gideon from her novella Of Sorrow and Such is one of those characters. Slatter’s stories in general are full of fantastic older characters who do terrible and wonderful things. Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse is another awesome example of an older character that acts against the common expectations for a character of her age. Both in the show and the books she is one of my favourite characters in science fiction. And one of the reasons I enjoyed Squid Game the show so much was definitely the use of older characters.
RN: Above you say “It was important for me to show that even inside this callous and cruel system ruled by governments and corporations, by greed and profit, there was a sense of community and comradeship, and that this is what made life bearable for the crews.” And I immediately think about people I knew when working retail who seemed built to help others “get through it” by making the workplace tolerable. And they are usually a bit older, when I think back on it – maybe not in their 60s, but a little older than those they are working with. It’s as if mentoring – which I think is at the core of Petra’s character – is something built into us – and as if, in a way, it helps us resist, or at least build our resilience to – the system. But it occurs to me too that these mentors also help accommodate us to the system – and here, it is a system that ends up destroying Petra and then Jacob as well. For me what haunts this story is the sense that in the end, although we do everything we can to build compassion and solidarity within the rank-and-file, the indifference of the system tears us apart. Is this a story about resistance, then? Or the futility of resistance? Or something else entirely?
MH: Oh, for sure this duality of Petra’s mentorship was on my mind as I wrote the story. Petra taught them to take care of each other and be responsible for each other, but like you say, she also helps the company by making the workers fit themselves into the system instead of abandoning it or rebelling against it. The way I imagined the society Becca and Jacob find themselves in, is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to live outside the system and that the Company, and the political system, are so powerful that most people see any kind of rebellion as futile. Also, I think that for the Deepster Punks, they are very much in love with the danger of the work, and with their status as “daredevils” living on the edge. And maybe with the money too to some extent. They are not rebels. They like living on the edge, and they get a kick out of doing dangerous work that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do, or dare to do. And I think that for Petra, she saw her role as being someone who honed them into a community within the Company, within the system. Under other circumstances, in another story perhaps, she could have been more of a rebel and resistance leader, but here her focus is community and survival. What I wanted to portray in the story is mostly the way people find ways to survive within systems that do not care if they live or die. In my eyes, that is a very common human form of resistance, to care for people around you and to care for yourself, even though you do not rebel or try to overthrow the system. It’s like trying to make safer spaces, more caring and nurturing spaces, inside this behemoth of a system that is not concerned with the welfare of individual people unless it’s for profit somehow. That said, I do wonder what Becca and Jacob would do after the events of this story. Because I do think that they might have been pushed past the limit of what they can tolerate, and I feel like whatever they do next might be something that involves more overt resistance (whether inside or outside the Company), or maybe they would just walk away from the work. It is something I think about.
RN: I really like how you explicate above the idea that Petra’s focus is community and survival, and how the story focuses on the way people find ways to survive within systems that do not care if they live or die. Let me ask you: do you find writers to be in a similar system? And do you see, or feel, a sense of community built around a similar idea? Watching the latest court battle over the increasing monopsonist and monopolist tendencies in publishing, it seems as if the industry is at once becoming more consolidated, in the negative sense, and at the same time more fragmented. What do you think about the current state of the community formed around the skilled trade of writing? And specifically (if you want to speak to it) of speculative fiction.
MH: Looking at the current news items about the publishing world at large, I’m appalled. To see the top people at these massive publishing houses essentially claim they don’t know how anything works is bad. And the way they discuss earnings and money for writers shows a real disconnect from the reality a lot of writers, in SFF and elsewhere, experience. Hearing the stories about so many editors and other people at publishing houses, in SFF and mainstream lit, quitting because they are not getting the compensation or the respect they deserve is also devastating. It really seems to be that the money generated by the books isn’t going where it should be going in the industry. It’s not going to writers (unless you’re a Big Name), and it’s not going to the editors and editorial assistants who are the main support for writers. There are obviously indie publishers where the dynamics and financial situations are different, but taken all together it makes me wonder about how and why the publishing business are missing so many opportunities to support and nurture new, and old!, writers.
As for the speculative fiction writing community, I think it can be a hugely positive force and is often very supportive. There are certainly power structures, and power dynamics, at work that are not always clearly visible or evident unless you have some inside knowledge and that can feel sort of forbidding at times when you’re new… and maybe when you’re not new, too, to be honest.
Looking at it on a purely personal, small-scale level the speculative fiction community I interact with means a lot to me. When I first got into writing, I had no community at all. This was a long time ago when I still wrote in Swedish and had a Swedish publisher. My editor at the publishing house Norstedts at the time was great, but he was based in Stockholm and I lived far away from that scene. I didn’t know anyone in my everyday life who was a writer. And since this was before the internet took off, I didn’t have an online community either. I’d meet people at some events, but it was not enough to really get a network or community thing going. When I came back to writing in 2015, after years away from it, I started writing in English and I was also already on Twitter. Now, I know social media has a terrible side, but for me, it has meant that for the first time in my life, I have a community of writers that I know and interact with on an almost daily basis. It’s made a world of difference for me both as a writer and as a person, and it has made me realize how important these kinds of friendships and professional relationships with other writers can be.
RN: Maria, that note on having a community of writers for the first time in your life seems like a good one to end on. I’ve also found the SFFH community to be, overall, quite supportive, and this Better Dreaming series has been a wonderful opportunity to connect with people whose work and thinking I admire. Thanks so much for taking part in it. This is a wonderful story, and I feel like we could keep talking about it forever, digging into its layers. But I also think all conversations are just fragments of a larger conversation. I look forward to continuing this one with you at another time, perhaps in person somewhere in the world.
MH: Thank you so much for having me! I find that as a writer, I make so many subconscious choices when I’m writing, choices I am aware of, but don’t really think about making. Talking about one of my stories in depth like this is rewarding even for me, because it brings up a lot of those things that goes on beneath the surface of my mind as I’m writing. I’m always a bit nervous to talk about my own work, but this conversation with you was pure joy. Thank you.