This month I have the privilege of talking with Andy Dudak, prolific short story writer and translator, about his recent Clarkesworld story “Songs of Activation.” This story offers many windows into the writer’s art. Andy and I explore a few of them below. Enjoy! And please do contribute to the conversation in the comments – I assure you either Andy, myself, or someone else will respond.
RN: First of all, Andy – thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this fledgling project. And thank you for choosing your story “Songs of Activation”. This story is extraordinarily rich. I find myself with many, many questions I could ask, but I have to limit myself.
So, here is the first question: There is a line early on in the story which builds a bridge between science and ideology that I find fascinating. It seems like a great place to start talking about this story’s themes: “The finer ethical justifications of empire, as worked out by the ancients. The properties of quantized spacetime, which make it the ultimate data storage medium, and allow it to be manipulated, colonized, and settled.” Throughout the story, we see science and ideology woven together. They are the warp and weft of the world you create. Arguably, they are warp and weft of our own as well. Can you speak a bit about this tapestry of science and ideology functions in the story and – if you are willing – how you might be using that to reflect on or explore their function in our world?
AD: I guess science and ideology form a feedback loop, shaping each other. With science and colonialism in particular, it’s clear how this works, from gun powder to the military industrial complex. In the story, I describe spacetime as ripe for colonization. I set that up for contrast with the alternate POV that Pinander later attains. The main conceit of the story—knowledge uploaded to student brains and activated as they memorize certain songs—is meant to illustrate how education plays a key role in the science/ideology loop. How knowledge is activated depends on ideology. An empire might see quantized spacetime (and entanglement of spacetime quanta) as an opportunity to manipulate, to colonize. Another POV might learn the same physics and think ‘Universal oneness,’ leading to a pacifist policy of respecting the other.
RN: I like what you say above about how education plays a key role in the science/ideology loop and “how knowledge is activated depends on ideology.” In another conversation, I talk about how I see science, philosophy, literature, and economics as firmly intertwined. For example, the way Darwin’s (much misinterpreted) scientific theories were rooted in capitalism but then also became a system in which other ideas took root: ideas of social structure, competition, efficiency, and adaptation that were borrowed by Darwin from capitalist, machine, and factory metaphors, then became themselves “scientific” metaphors to which people appealed to justify the worst excesses of industrial capitalism. Those “Darwinian” concepts still shape how we think about society today.
But beyond this entanglement, there is another side to this story – Pinander is introduced to a different way of viewing the world. He is, in fact, chosen to be introduced to it. As the professor who does so puts it, “I think you can handle both contexts at once.” What is it about the character of Pinander that allows him to be able to do this when others in the story cannot?”
AD: Pinander is an outsider at the university because of his economic status. He’s had to work harder than anyone else to be there. He sees things differently from the other students. I tried to illustrate this with the Titan-analog atmosphere and sky, which most students ignore, trusting in the shield holding it at bay, while Pinander can’t stop looking up at it and obsessing on it. The rich students’ party and the ansible calls home also provided opportunities to show Pinander’s fundamentally different perspective. Overall, I think it comes down to his pragmatism. I tried to set that up as a quirk or even character flaw, knowing he would find some sort of idealism in the end, but it turned out his pragmatism was essential to getting there. Does this make any sense? To be honest, Pin took on a life of his own as I wrote, and he sort of went where he went. Maybe it’s easier for a poor scholar-shipper to understand a rich student’s POV than the other way around, making Pin uniquely primed for the dual perspective of Weald/Sinecure.
RN: That does make sense to me – his status as an outsider, and economic status being the cause for that outsider’s awareness, work well in the story. Speaking of that: One of the themes you return to again and again in this story is that of class difference. Here’s a great passage dedicated to that concern:
“The revelers sway drunkenly, heads hanging, amid rolling stormfronts of smart vapor. Here in the compounds this is possible, where obscene wealth keeps campus law at bay. Compared to these students, dorm denizens, still fabulously wealthy by empire standards, might as well be paupers.
Pinander wonders what that makes him.
Wandering through ornate gardens in his black student robe, he draws looks from fashionably and scantily clad partygoers. There is commotion ahead, a crowd psychedelically blurred by smart vapor. He gives it wide berth—a fight, from what he can hear. Someone stole someone’s meds. This contributes to Pinander’s sense of being an alien here. It is usually the most privileged students who engage in theft, violence, and drugs. He remembers Philo lobbing a cannister of vandalism nano at the façade of the Crypt. Pinander couldn’t fathom this. Philo’s clan paid a fortune to send him here, and he was an adult choosing to stay.”
It's a powerfully relatable passage for me, so precisely paralleling the “real world” experience of class difference and privilege that it brought me back immediately to my UCSC undergraduate days, when I (along with many others) was working full time while taking a full load of classes, and watching, with resentment, students fully supported by their wealthy families – kids who only had to study, not support themselves as well, screw around and waste the opportunities they had been given.
This story is suffused with the resentments of class consciousness, and the limitations Pinander finds himself under, as a “working class” student among the rich. In a follow-up I want to address the potentials that also provides, but for the time being, I’d like to know why you chose this theme. Can you speak a bit about that?
AD: I think Pinander’s backstory evolved as a way to set him apart from other students. I needed him to be something of a “chosen one,” but I didn’t want him to have special lineage or anything like that. I gave him the cynical pragmatism that can evolve in response to hobbyist idealisms of the privileged. This establishes Pinander’s arc, since he ends up with genuine idealism. At some point while writing this story, I saw a tweet about the tendency of the most privileged students to steal and get in trouble. This got me thinking back to my own university days and I realized it’s true. I was somewhere between poor and privileged, but I remember the rich screw-ups. So, Pinander’s background gives him both the strength-of-character and room-for-arc to turn an empire on its ear, and (hopefully) be interesting while he’s doing it.
RN: Say a bit more, please, about the “hobbyist idealisms of the privileged” that you mention above. It’s certainly something you address in the story – the way Pinander views even Jain’s suicide as the kind of selfish act he cannot afford. How does his lack of freedom due to economic constriction lend Pinander’s decisions more weight than those who have more options? Intuition (I am definitely playing Devil’s Advocate here) would seem to tell us that having more freedom, rather than less, would make one’s eventual decisions more “authentic.” Why do you view it as the reverse?
AD: In another story (long ago trunked) I had a main character from a poor country who hunted endangered bushmeat to survive. She found the pretentions of rich foreign conservationists laughable. I’m all for conservation, but when I stumbled upon this character trait, she really came to life for me and it was much easier to write her. I empathized, possibly because of my decade in China, and the hypocrisy of pig-eating Westerners judging various Asian meat dishes. I love dogs and dolphins, but pigs are complex emotional beings too. To answer your authenticity question, maybe it’s just that with a lot of privilege or economic freedom, with fewer responsibilities, you’re more likely to stumble carelessly into hypocrisy. Of course, these are all generalizations. As someone who grew up somewhere in the middle, the perspectives of extreme wealth and extreme poverty are both mysterious to me. We writers return again and again to the mysterious, don’t we?
RN: We do, I think. It’s hard for me to imagine a writer of SF who is not drawn to the mysterious. And I like here particularly how you draw on the connection to a common hypocrisy: The criticism of other cultures’ eating habits. It’s interesting the way people appear unable to actually see their own culture’s habits: It’s like a blank space inside their brain. During my years in Central Asia, it was always an obsession of Americans to point out that Central Asians were unsanitary because they “eat with their hands.” Which immediately seemed strange to me, as Americans eat with their hands constantly – pizza, French fries, sandwiches, burgers, chicken wings and fried chicken . . . the list of what Americans eat with their hands goes on and on, but they had never thought about it. And if you told them they eat with their hands, they would say, “but they eat greasy things with their hands (meaning plov/pilav). It’s hard to even respond to someone who says that, when they eat fried chicken and French fries with their hands.
I want to turn here to some of the descriptive power of the story. I love the line “Smart vapor makes flickering palaces of the suites bordering the garden.” And there are so many other lines, beautifully evocative of a sense of place that is at once fantastically high tech and medieval / feudal. Can you talk a bit about what techniques you use as a writer to create and draw your readers into a world?
AD: Sure, one thing I was consciously trying to do in this story is bring dialogue to the forefront. It’s what I enjoy writing most, and I find when I let it flow where it wants, it’s good for a story. It also contributes to the screenwriting concept of “verticality,” which means no chunks of text that are too long, or at least variety in paragraph length, and a continual healthy mix of dialogue vs action vs description or exposition. With description or atmosphere setting, I tend to aim for concision. My general rule of thumb is if I’m getting bored, the reader will too. The moment I feel bored, I switch from action to dialogue or vice versa. This often shapes the story in significant ways. If I’m really in dialogue-zone, the characters start speaking on their own, and things get emergent!
RN: I love that way dialogue has of creating this sense, in the mind of a writer, of the characters as actual people; they become subject-positions that express their own desires and can move a story forward in unexpected ways. It is a curious form of emergence, for sure. Thanks for the reference to verticality, as well: that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole (I found a good description of the concept here). I do like the way other mediums (screenplay writing, films in general, comics, painting) can teach us techniques that strengthen our fiction writing, giving us tools and techniques we may not have otherwise had. Speaking of tools and techniques, you make a shift in this story from third person to second person in section 11, and you remain in that second person mode for the rest of the story. Can you tell us why you made that choice, and about how you think person affects the story?
I started writing in second person by accident, around the time Pin interfaces with the faculty library and spacetime itself. I may have been DMing that day, I’m not sure, and 2nd person present tense is indeed ‘dungeon master voice.’ It revitalized my interest in the story, which had been flagging. It also fit in that Pin’s own perspective is shifting at that point, becoming way more psychedelic, and I felt the 2nd person shift would help the reader experience this. That said, I was prepared to shift it back at Neil’s request. It wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, just an experiment, and I’m still not sure it worked.
RN: That’s an interesting connection I’d like to jump on: more and more, I run into writers in the genre who are active DMs. Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games were formational for me, and a central part of my childhood. My first short stories were really just visualizations of the worlds I was trying to create or play in in Dungeons and Dragons and other games. I don’t play role playing games anymore, but that’s more due to happenstance and my nomadic life than choice. Can you talk a bit about how role-playing fit into your life, and about how it informs your writing?
AD: A lot of my early writing was clumsily attempted novelization of D&D campaigns, or character backstories, or worldbuilding as a DM. Now that D&D is experiencing a renaissance and becoming entertainment in its own right (Critical Role for instance), a generation or two of writers are realizing just how formative roleplaying was for them. I spent much of my childhood drawing maps and creating almanacs for worlds that I never got around to DMing. My first series of novels, written in junior high, was based on a chaotic neutral thief named Finn the Snake. He became a sort of trickster figure and agent of chaos in a wider fantasy epic. In 2016 I got back into D&D, online at Roll20, and I find it keeps the creative juices flowing, promoting synergy between various creative endeavors, i.e. sketching, mapmaking, backstory development, and just thinking about character arcs in general. My story ‘Midstrathe Exploding’ (Analog March 2020, Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol.2: The Saga Anthology) started off as just a setting, a city undergoing a very slow-motion explosion. I struggled to come up with a character to explore this setting. Finally, I got back to basics. I recalled the many pickpockets I played as a kid (I was partial to rogues), and the story wrote itself.
RN: I was also partial to thieves. I think almost everyone I knew as a kid was. Nobody wanted to play the other characters, but someone had to. It was always an argument. And it’s interesting you should mention mapping: The maps in fantasy novels were incredibly influential for me, and I spent hours copying them and innovating maps of my own. I think that early practice in worldbuilding was formative for me: I was always interested in the backstory and the environment where things take place – so central to D&D – made me the kind of writer who constantly thinks about the why and the where of things. There were tons of other influences of course – comic books and film, for example, but role-playing games stand out for me as well. And so glad to hear “Midstrathe Exploding” will be appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol.2: The Saga Anthology. My short story “Father” (Asimov’s July/August 2020) will be in that anthology as well. Very happy to be sharing a table of contents with you!
I’d like to pivot to another aspect of your story: Having lived and worked a good deal in Central Asia, specifically in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as well as in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and in Russia itself, I have seen many people subjected to colonization (I will remind the reader that the now-former USSR was, in fact, an empire: it occupied, not coincidentally, nearly the exact territory of its predecessor, the Russian Empire, subjugating the same peoples). The people I met in Central Asia and elsewhere in the territory of the former USSR often have fine-grained, highly nuanced views of empire – not only of its drawbacks, but also of its benefits and opportunities.
You seem to express one of those points of view in the story, in the character of Pinander’s father: “Da always thanked his abyssal gods that Mother-of-Pearl system was entangled with the empire. He prayed for the empire at their home shrine. He prayed his son would sit the Exam and become an Imperial Factor. Pinander never prayed, but he studied the shrine’s myriad figurines. Among the abyssal gods were imperial figures, including a miniature Paragon Weald, more crudely represented than in the Crypt.” Can you share with us something of your own experiences with empire, and why you chose to represent this complicated sentiment here?
AD: I lived in Kazakhstan as well, and I’m familiar with the complex post-Soviet sentiment you’re talking about. I met people (usually older) who missed the Soviet days, and younger folks who were embracing the new. Now that you mention it, maybe that was at play subconsciously when I wrote Da’s scene. I’ve had other, starker experiences with colonization, but I’m not sure how much they came to bear on my story, which is about indoctrination and civil service, rather than say atrocities on a frontier. The Emanation’s imperial exam is inspired by Chinese history and Confucianism, but only in a general way. When concocting The Emanation, I was thinking of various historical empires, including the Roman and British, but in the end a lot of that didn’t come up, since the story’s scope is quite narrow, focused on Pin and the university campus. For a story of this length, I thought it was enough that we knew there was an exploitative empire in the background.
RN: I get the sense that there is a lot of backstory involved here, and that we will be seeing more of “The Emanation” from you. Is that the case? Is this a world you plan on returning to?
AD: I often start with a title, and one I’ve had for a while is ‘The Emanation and the Gaze.’ I imagine some kind of race between two empires, one traveling at lightspeed as information, the other opening wormholes (but spending time doing so). The Gaze, or the Imperial Gaze, is an empire name I’ve used before (The Abundance, F&SF May 2019) but I don’t think this Gaze would be the same. Wormholes would be its eyes, while the Emanation would be an empire as code, transmitting to distant alien artefacts, hacking them, making them produce physical imperial nodes. Now I just need a character, or better yet a pair of them, one from each empire, with romantic tension. Maybe time to return to the D&D well again! Do you ever create stories based entirely on love of a catchy title?
RN: That’s a very cool-sounding idea. I’m looking forward to seeing it take shape. As for your question: I think I have, but I’m not sure. For me, stories seem to kind of sit somewhere in the back of my brain, with a lot of nodes bouncing around – a piece of technology I want to explore, or a philosophical concept, a theme, maybe a title or an idea for some kind of image or scene. They sort of coalesce until they form a constellation of sorts, and then once I start writing, things become clearer. They get “emergent” as you say above – stories have a way of guiding themselves toward completion, most of the time.
Speaking of completion – this seems as good a place as any to bring this conversation to an end, at least for now. Thank you, again, for agreeing to take part in this project. I really appreciate all of the time and effort you put into this exchange. I hope it is the first of many.
AD: Me too. Thanks so much for including me, Ray. I enjoyed this back and forth. What a cool idea for an interview series! I also appreciate your insightful reading of my story, and what you just said about ideas coalescing, pre-writing, I totally get that. It’s almost like a sci-fi conceit meets a character, a setting, or other ideas and they reach a kind of critical mass that leads to writing. Anyway, we can discuss this more in future conversations. I hope I’ve been interesting, and thanks again!
For the second Better Dreaming conversation I got a chance to talk to Julie Nováková about her story, “The Ship Whisperer”, which originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (sharing a ToC, coincidentally, with my story “Do Not Forget Me” in that issue). We explore, along the way, many a science fiction rabbit hole. I came out of this conversation with a sense of wonder at Julie’s breadth of interest and thematic ambition, and with several additions to my personal reading list, which is already far too long . . .
RN: First of all, Julie, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. Better Dreaming is still a fledgling effort, and I appreciate your faith in the project. I think your story “The Ship Whisperer” is an excellent choice: there is certainly a lot to talk about here, in this story whose protagonist gets along better with a ship’s AI than with people. The closing line of the first paragraph is beautiful: “I might tell you my own story – the story of a broken mirror.” What I love about the line is how science fictional it is: the paragraph starts off by talking about one type of mirror, the “mundane” mirrors of our day-to-day world, and superstition about the breaking of mirrors, but later will we learn that the “broken mirror” being referred to is actually mirror neurons. Can you tell us a bit more about the hard science inspiration for the protagonist’s very specific way of being in the world?
JN: Sure! Mind you, I’m not a neuroscientist, just keep an interest in the field. My own background is in evolutionary biology. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons first discovered almost three decades ago in macaques in the brain’s frontal lobes, in the vicinity of neurons responsible for motor command (for instance controlling my hands’ movements as I type this). Mirror neurons, though, activate also when I watch another person typing (or pulling a lever, dribbling a ball, dancing… you get the picture). They “mirror” those movements, thus the naming. They probably help us learn new skills by imitating them without the need to actually physically perform the imitated task in real-time.
Since then, they have been discovered in multiple species including humans and in multiple brain areas, and widely studied. A number of studies suggest that they are involved in understanding the goals of others’ actions, contributing to empathy and the theory of mind (put simply, “putting yourself in another’s shoes”). That is their feature I used in “The Ship Whisperer”, whose protagonist Icarus Caille was born with a mirror neuron dysfunction, treated by neuronal growth factors and strengthening of selected pathways. Icarus can empathize with others easily – too easily for his own comfort, because it causes him pain to see and indirectly experience so much he doesn’t like in them. They, in turn, are often wary of him because the procedure he’s had rings too close to extensive neural and other modifications that are banned in their particular society – basically, they’re not keen on all aspects of transhumanism. That is why Icarus shuns the presence of people and prefers to spend time with the starship’s artificial intelligence.
But the real story of mirror neurons is much more convoluted (no neural network pun intended!). They have been popularly nicknamed “empathy neurons” and suffered from much hype, where their function has been either simplified as purely “empathizing”, or they have on the other hand been attributed a wide array of functions from empathy across language abilities to “social mimicry” and even aesthetic feeling. Again, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I like to at least skim the academic literature before potentially greatly embarrassing myself, and I’m wary of saying any of the above with certainty. The thing is, brains are complex and not easy to study, and especially with a relatively new direction of research like the mirror neurons, you’d be disappointed if you were looking for definitive answers and absolute scientific consensus. You rarely get these in science except the blatantly obvious, and it’s a good feature, because we really can say stone-solid conclusions about something with rarity. No methodology is perfect: imagine for instance a study whose participants were asked to watch someone grasp an object and also to grasp it themselves, all the while having their brain activity imaged. A class of neurons is observed to fire during both tasks. Voila, mirror neurons! But does it say anything about their role in understanding the goals of others’ actions? Wouldn’t we be making a great error attributing this function to them without a wider set of methodologies? Or imagine that we previously knew next to nothing about those neurons, only had the hypothesis that they would correspond to others’ and well as the subject’s movements. But we had no control situation, where we could discover for instance that they also fired when a drone moved in the subject’s field of view, or a bird flew there, or tree leaves were shuffled by the wind. Hey, they respond to any sort of movement! How could we have missed that at first? (No, mirror neurons don’t actually do that.)
I just made this example up and it’s intentionally taken ad absurdum, but hopefully it illustrates a bit that virtually any study necessarily has some kind of limitations, regardless of whether you’re looking at humans, animals, plants, microbes or the non-living world. There are always degrees of freedom. Things you either can’t account for, because it’s theoretically or practically impossible, or didn’t account for, because your methodology was found lacking (the made-up example), or we have yet to improve as they are very difficult (ever dove into the statistical analysis of fMRI data?), or we had no idea they would be important. I try to at least hint at these limitations in my stories, which often contain scientist characters.
So… what can we reliably say about mirror neurons? It’s reasonably safe to say that they play a substantial role in learning (albeit several specific mechanisms for that have been proposed and found some experimental support), perhaps empathy as well, but I wouldn’t call any of that solid. It’s a lively research topic that’s being addressed by new approaches all the time – now we can see studies imaging individual neurons and their activity. It’s brilliant and fascinating and we’ll see where it goes! (And I do welcome any real neuroscience expert to step in and correct me where I’ve almost certainly erred.)
RN: I really appreciate, above, your caution with science, and your stress on its complexity and uncertainty. I also use a good deal of neuroscience in my work (and I am also not a neuroscientist), and one of the most fascinating aspects of the field for me is its hypercomplexity. Unfortunately, that hypercomplexity also lends itself to a lot of nonsense interpretations of its findings – “neurological astrology,” I would call it, which is similar to the kind of “genetic astrology” that has led to so much simplistic popular interpretation of genes and their influence especially on human behavior. But I am also interested here in the way you use the mirror neurons as a metaphor, and I think that is a particular power of science fiction. I have said elsewhere that one of the keys to science fiction (I mean science fiction as a subset of speculative fiction) is that it uses science both in its “factual” sense and in its metaphorical senses. I think you do precisely this in your first paragraph. How do you see this relationship – science as “factual” and science as a metaphorical tool for storytelling?
JN: I must admit I do this mostly on the unconscious levels, where parallels find themselves, because they “fit” into the story. Where I do it intentionally is sometimes in science outreach, but rather in the opposite way – using the metaphorical sense first to convey facts, such as using the perilous journey of a fictitious interstellar spacecraft to get across what we know and assume about Proxima Centauri b, or illustrating facts about Venus by fragments of pulp age stories (which shows that you don’t just need SF that “gets it right” to communicate science – sometimes exactly the opposite is convenient). I think that SF has an enormous potential as a tool of science outreach, which is why I’ve become leader of the “science-fictional outreach” project team at the European Astrobiology Institute. Our first major act was creating a freely available anthology of astrobiological SF accompanied by nonfiction, titled Strangest of All. I’m immensely grateful to the amazing authors who contributed their reprint stories, do hope that readers are finding my brand-new nonfiction pieces intriguing as well, and plan to follow up on this project with a print anthology of originals. If a few more bullet points are successfully ticked, we shall hear more about it this year and see it ideally in early 2022.
RN: I downloaded the anthology and am looking forward to it – although I have to say I’m not sure how happy I am about having yet another intriguing book added to my already intimidating reading list . . .
Seriously though, I agree that SF does not need to necessarily “get it right” to communicate science – or perhaps more exactly, to be used as a tool to get people interested in scientific thinking. And even “predictive” SF, which is truly aiming at anticipating real developments in technology, etc. cannot possibly hope to be correct much of the time. I’m very suspicious of the idea of SF as “predictive,” and I mostly view essays about how “right” or “wrong” different SF stories were about the future as a juvenile misreading of the genre, or “genre policing.”
On the other hand, books like New Light Trough Old Windows, by Stephen Webb, which uses older SF stories to demonstrate concepts such as cryptozoology, transmogrification, etc. are fascinating – and I find them inspiring. My story “Año Nuevo”, which is coming up in Asimov’s, was in fact inspired by reading Stephen Webb’s nonfiction explication of one of the stories in Windows. So I look forward to reading Strangest of All, and hope the new print anthology works out as well.
JN: Thank you! I’m also wary of treating SF as “predictive”; adjectives such as “inspiring”, “thought-provoking”, “warning” or “exploring” stick much closer to the subject in my opinion. We need stories trying to anticipate real advancements and their impacts, but rather than simply predicting the future letting us explore its possibilities to better steer it ourselves. Novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for The Future, which I’ve recently started reading, are the type of important science fiction I mean by this.
Then of course there’s the question whether we “need” more optimistic, “we’ve managed to solve this” SF, or pessimistic, “we’ve screwed this up cardinally” SF for that. I like to think both are useful to elicit the right kind of response. Optimistic SF can perhaps lend us more traction, but also make us fall into the pit of “the future will bring solutions, it always works out somehow – why do something right now”. There’s often fear that pessimistic SF makes people think we can’t change the future enough, so why try at all, but I don’t think it has this kind of effect so frequently. On the contrary, it can activize from the opposite direction. So – which one to choose? Stick to Rowland or Watts? Well, both, of course. I’m always lousy at picking sides and view both directions as needed. And, naturally, I prefer the right blend of both – which, in my view, is what Robinson does perfectly.
RN: Returning to your story: The ship in “The Ship Whisperer” is named for Giordano Bruno, the cosmic pluralist Dominican friar who insisted the universe was infinite and could have no center. This naming is a wonderful piece of intertextuality, inviting the reader down a rabbit hole of speculation as to how the ship Giordano Bruno relates to the man, who was burned at the stake for heresy – related more to his hermetic occultism and religious heresies than his cosmological theories – in 1600. Why this man? What is it about him that drew you to name the ship after him?
JN: The first layer of the naming was rather straightforward and down-to-earth: “The shuttles’ quantum computers were less powerful than the ship’s by orders of magnitude. If Bruno was a human, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Galilei might be lizards. The idea was to name this mission’s vessels after famous astronomers. Of course, the starship ended up named after the only one of them who technically wasn’t an astronomer.” Which, in my experience, shows how naming intentions often end up.
The deeper layer, though, connects to Bruno’s speculations about the plurality of worlds and life on them. In a story that deals with humankind’s first contact with evidence of another civilization, and given what the found device does and where the characters end up (no spoilers), I found the naming quite apt.
RN: I definitely saw that connection, given Bruno’s speculations about a plurality of worlds. But I also think there may be a connection to a “plurality of worlds” in the story as a plurality of individual viewpoints – or, given the radical nature of some of those viewpoints (which include the posthuman) “umwelts.” The characters in the story have different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view and capacities for understanding. Was that sense of “plurality” also intended? Can you speak a bit about that?
JN: Of course. The main characters of the story – the ship whisperer Icarus Caille, Colonel Torres, astrophysicist Lakshmi Ranganatan and the ship Giordano Bruno – each hold a very different view of the cosmic impossibility they came to investigate. Each relies on their particular experience, assumptions and working of the mind. Icarus is fascinated and astonished by what they encountered… but very aware that not all others share his kind of curiosity:
“However, I was not so naïve to think that all of us viewed the black dwarf with the same joy, awe and fascination. Take Ranganatan: For all her genius, she is without imagination. She can follow protocols she understands by nature, astrophysics comes to her as easily as breathing. She sees a problem to solve. She has no idea what this discovery means for the human race. It's just another equation to her."
But that is still a good option. She's a good person – even if she's very detached by most humans' standards.
"And then Torres. He sees a potential weapon; nothing else. He's got imagination – just enough to imagine encapsulating the Chara system and accelerating time to render its civilization to dust in a matter of nanoseconds in our time frame. Or to imagine sending it into an uninhabitable universe if he could.”
The ship’s views of the investigated phenomenon remain partly obscured until the end, when Icarus learns about Giordano Bruno’s final action. Imagination, curiosity, fear, problem-solving, caring – it all enters into the question.
It’s interesting that you mention the concept of Umwelt. Having studied at a university with a strong Austro-German tradition of education (heritage from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), at a department with a strong focus on the methodology, history and philosophy of science, Jakob von Uexküll [the author of the concept] was practically required reading. I like playing with the concept, but of course I’m by far not alone in that, nor among the best. Much of speculative fiction does that, consciously or not. One of my favorite authors exploring it is Terry Pratchett. He was a genius (not just in this) in using various umwelts in his Discworld books. They feature Sergeant Angua (a werewolf, whose sense of smell and differences in human or wolf shape perception are brilliantly portrayed), the witches (who can do Borrowing, temporarily placing their mind in animals – the issues connected to that, the effect of the umwelt on the mind, are just spot-on, unlike in most other stories toying with such speculations), and other characters whose senses and consequently style of perception and cognition are not entirely human.
Though we’re mainly exploring SF here, I think it’s an important reminder that you can find interesting scientific concepts even in fantasy. I’m currently revising a recently finished science fantasy novel of mine that includes a golem character loosely based on Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s classic Ganymede, down to the name Radovan (same as in Karásek’s novel) as a wink to the readers. My Radovan can for instance sense the magnetic field, which becomes crucial to the plot, and has extremely acute hearing with absolute pitch, but possesses no sense of smell. It’s also fun to include real-world figures – biologists Emanuel Rádl and the above-mentioned Jakob von Uexküll, art supporter and aristocrat Harry Kessler, and in passing physicists such as Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner and authors like Karásek himself and Gustav Meyrink – in the book, which takes place in the early 20th century. It allowed me to create a fantasy world that’s nevertheless strongly based on ours, including its history and science, and, well, plurality of worlds will play a role too…
RN: You definitely have me intrigued about the novel – seeing Jakob von Uexküll as a character is enough reason for me to read it. And I should mention that, while this particular set of conversations is (for now) focused on SF, I – like you – certainly don’t buy into the hierarchical binary that places fantasy at some lower level from SF: I think fantasy done well is just as powerful as SF. As is horror done well, or any other genre at its best. I want to make that clear. SF just has a set of affordances that differs from that of fantasy, horror, or mainstream fiction, or the historical novel or the essay. I don’t perceive any genre as superior to others, and I think there is also a great deal of productive overlap between all of them, with some of the most interesting writing occurring in the interstices. But in this particular set of dialogues, I’m interested in exploring the particular affordances of science fiction. I think the conversations will gain more coherence from that narrowed focus.
Another question for you: the particularity of your protagonist’s mind is one of the strengths of this work. The protagonist comes off initially as introverted, with stilted interactions with people, and an easy assumption to make initially is that this introversion comes from some level of Autism Spectrum Condition. But we learn that in fact, it is an oversensitivity to people’s emotions (and intentions) that leads to this introversion. I love this idea. My mother has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition, and it has always occurred to me that “The Spectrum” should be thought of as including all of us – a very long line segment along which can be located all levels of connectedness to the emotions of others, with what is thought of in today’s psychology as “The Spectrum” a smaller segment along that line. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for your protagonist’s oversensitivity?
JN: Of course. I have always been interested in the workings of the mind, its substrate and its inextricable connection to the body (the senses, the gut, the microbiome…). As to the specific example of Icarus, I guess my starting point was myself. I have always responded to people’s emotions more on the analytical level (such as reasoning “Oh, they lost their beloved pet. They must be devastated. I need to be sensitive, gently comfort them and offer to help with anything they might need.”, but not feeling their sadness myself). It works, it’s completely natural for me, the responses are appropriate and I don’t feel constrained in my social life in any way, but I have always had to use imagination to conjure the idea of feeling someone else’s emotion, sort of catching it from them. Only rarely do I perceive it as a drawback. Once, a friend of mine had a potential complication in pregnancy while we were traveling with her and her husband. They went to the hospital for a checkup and I stayed in the rented flat. I couldn’t do anything for them – there was no reason for me to come with them, I would only get in the way, and so far there was also no need for me to bring them anything. I opened my laptop and stared at it, knowing that I should be more worried. I was worried, but it was my emotion, certainly nowhere near as strong as theirs, and with it, I would be able to get on with working. There was no sense in fretting about, crying, biting my lip, compulsively cleaning, whatever one might imagine someone with a stronger emotional response might do. It would help nothing. I could do absolutely nothing to help for the time being and greater fear would definitely not help anything, whereas productive work would bridge the time from now to whenever I could potentially help, so why did I feel compelled to be beside myself with worry and guilty at not being so?
In the end, everything was fine and we could continue the holiday, but after that I decided to avoid this kind of response in the future. If the next time something like that happens, I’m beside myself with worry, so be it. If I’m again worried but well able to get something helpful in other ways done in the meantime, so be it and why feel guilty about it? I care differently than most people probably do, but caring it is, and being more analytical about it can be an advantage (for instance in adopting anti-pandemic measures, as I found when I shunned all social contact outside the immediate family, and even that very carefully, while a deeply emotionally caring, normal-feeling, equally intelligent and high-risk friend went to cafés).
I imagined Icarus having the opposite “problem”: feeling others’ emotions so well that he deeply disliked it.
I must confess that I often end up writing characters who are socially awkward, not well connected to others or choosing to avoid them, because they would connect too much. My characters often have some quirk or neuroatypicality, be it synesthesia (“mixing” of sensory inputs; induced synesthesia e.g. in “All The Smells of The World” [Analog 1-2/2019], “Étude for An Extraordinary Mind” [Futuristica, Vol. II anthology, podcasted by StarShipSofa] or “Dancing An Elegy, His Own” [Fantasy Scroll 2015]), prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces; e.g. in “Goal Invariance Under Radical Self-Modification” [Future SF Digest issue 6, March 2020] or my Czech SF trilogy Blíženci), or a severed corpus callosum (“A Mountain to Climb” [AVATARS Inc.]). I must point out again that I’m not a neuroscientist. However, I always try to do my research well before writing.
I have always wondered what it would be like to change my sensorium, perception or cognition in some way, and I can imagine that in writing. I experienced synesthesia twice, on both occasions olfactory-auditory when listening to music while on mild analgesics for headache or cold symptoms. What would it be like to have perfect pitch? Absolute recall? Extended senses? As it is, I’m just mildly augmented in a way many people are – I wear glasses in order to see clearly.
In my native Czech, I’m writing under a pseudonym a series of historical mystery novels whose protagonist has an extremely keen sense of smell, something for which he didn’t find much understanding in the early 20th century. It’s fun to write these stories, to give the readers a less usual “in-body experience” through the character and be able to make him slightly more modern and very quirky. I’ve translated one of the shorter pieces accompanying the novels into English, and I hope we’ll see it in print in the foreseeable future.
On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.
With one character I wrote, Doctor Irena Belova in “From So Complex A Beginning” [Analog 9-10/2019, reprinted in Forever 9/2020], I hinted at this disorder – but at the same time showed her as a successful and competent ecosystem engineer, albeit on a personal level she had difficulty connecting with people and trusting them (and the crew of Ariadne station did not make it any easier for her). Another character, writer and reluctant exorcist Paul Leppin in “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” [Samovar July 2020], was showing signs of paranoia for a very different medical reason – he suffered from late-stage syphilis, which is often accompanied by paranoia and mood swings. Leppin was an actual historical figure, and I can only hope I portrayed him (including his condition, which he had in real life) with accuracy and dignity, including his deep remorse over the death of his son. The point is, though, there are as many subtle variants of the “same” condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the “human” purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.
JN: I’m drawn to less than typical characters in others’ work, too. After all, some of the characters I could best relate to were Sherlock Holmes, Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: TNG, and Siri Keeton from Peter Watts’ Blindsight. Not that I were a genius detective, superintelligent android or particularly adept at “reading” others and making connections, but there is something in them that makes them easy to relate to for me. And given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession. Any job offers?
RN: There is so much to talk about here that I will have to control some of my curiosity: there are dozens of possible questions I could ask. However, I will limit myself to two:
The first question: you say above that “On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.” My natural father (I was adopted by my stepfather, and did not grow up in contact with my natural father, though I lived with him until I was three and met him later, as an adult) has paranoid schizophrenia, so mental health issues (I already mentioned my mother’s diagnosis above) concern me deeply. You say later: “there are as many subtle variants of the ‘same’ condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the ‘human’ purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.” I view this statement as a kind of ethics: the idea that science must work toward generalization for medical and scientific purposes, while attending to the fact that each individual is never defined just by a condition – or by any single aspect, as you go on to argue. Do you think this is a commitment SF should make as well – not to forget the absolutely unique and uncategorizable experience of the individual, whatever the broader themes it explores?
JN: I think literature in general is well-suited to do that, whether SF or not. Science fiction has the advantage of being able to emphasize it by creating new worlds and new types of characters (e.g. posthuman or alien). But the best fiction of any genre does that – and even some nonfiction, such as really good history books. When I was a grammar school student [US readers might not know the concept of grammar school or “Gymnasium” – no connection to gyms; it’s usually an 8-year school where you transfer around the age of 11 if you pass the exams, but also 4-year program that is basically high school for academically talented kids], I disliked history lessons, because they were so boring. The teacher typically sat and read to us from the textbook, and it all seemed just like an endless stream of dates, coronations and battles. It lacked both the individual experience and the broader connections. Only when I started reading history books for myself did I absolutely fall in love with history. The best ones combined individual stories and viewpoints with broader context.
RN: I think I had the luck to have good history teachers from the start, or perhaps I simply filled the gaps of the boring lectures in with my own daydreams about that it would be like to be there, to be those people at that time. I always found history fascinating, and I can’t remember the experience of being bored by it, inside the class or outside. But that’s a digression. So here's my second question: Above you say “given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession.” I like that idea of being a “strange generalist” – it’s a definition I think might work well for me as well, a writer with a formal education in semiotics and modern literature who works as a diplomat but maintains a lifelong interest in biology and biosemiotics, along with other sciences, hard and soft. I have said elsewhere that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. And that I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. Writing allows me to then use all of that energy for something productive, but it also just gives me an excuse to carry out the kinds of research projects I would be engaged in anyway. Do you think that in some way you and I, and many others in our field, are already “synthesists” using SF to structure our curiosity?
JN: That’s an interesting point! I think you’re mostly right, because in writing science fiction, we can connect various disciplines and convey them to the general audience, and yeah, it gives us the excuse to go down the rabbit hole chasing anything from the temperature range of pulsars and speed of pulsar wind all the way across sources of magnetic anomalies, the visual range of houseflies or triggers of musth in elephants to the working of German opera in Prague in the early 20th century!
RN: So many rabbit holes, so little time! Thank you for going down these particular rabbit holes with me. Although we’ve talked about so much, I really feel there is so much more to explore. We’ll have to pick up the conversation at another time. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing your future current projects come to life!
In this first conversation, I get a chance to talk to M.L. Clark about “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan,” originally published in Analog in April 2016. M.L. Clark was an obvious choice to start off this series: There is no writer I know of with a more ethically informed take on the genre and its possibilities. “Seven Ways” is a great place to start, allowing us a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging discussion I hope you enjoy.
RN: First of all, thank you for setting out on this experiment with me, and thank you for choosing “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” as the story you wanted me to read. It was fascinating, and there is plenty to talk about here: You wind a number of themes into this narrative. So, let’s get started.
I really like this passage: “Our cruise ship, the Nauta Sunrise, was a sleek, two-klicks-long number with all the amenities needed to pass an entire life in and out of stasis, waking solely to take in a new experience or view.” It crystallizes, for me, one of the themes of the story: the idea of exploitative tourism, of cultures that hold themselves in some way “superior” to other cultures regarding the traditions of those cultures with both fascination and contempt. A tour guide is summarized at another point as regarding the inhabitants of Yul-Katan as “endearing, if misguided” and there are many references, wound throughout the text, to observing and (mis)judging the cultures of others. Can you talk a little about that, and about your treatment of cultural misunderstanding in the story?
MLC: Great starting point. I’m glad this theme leapt out in the reading. I was aiming for something a little more sinister than “cultural misunderstanding”, but I also remember being apprehensive about pushing the point too stridently, which perhaps meant it came across too subtly instead. For me, cultural tourism is not a passive act, but rather an imposing of outsider expectations on specific spaces and their peoples. In consequence, the very traditions that many marginalized communities take pride in maintaining might have naturally transformed into something else over time, if not for that economic dependency on cultures in positions of greater power. My intention with this story was to take this concept to a grim conclusion: the idea that people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own—supposedly in the interest of “preserving” other ways of life, but really to keep others in subordinate roles, serving well as entertainment.
RN: I don’t think your point came across too subtly or too stridently: in fact I think it is well-stated and just balanced enough. I should clarify that when I say “cultural misunderstanding” I am not talking in my question about the world structure we find out about following the big reveal at the end, but rather about the many moments wound through the text of misapprehension/misunderstanding (and fears of being misunderstood) that occur between characters. Also – in my opinion “misunderstanding,” which might sound mild, is very serious – it leads, in all cases, to some level of dehumanization, and in some cases, to exploitation and death. Even when it does not have personal, willful intent, I believe it is a product of a structure that produces and underpins it. That is to say, I think we often “misunderstand” those things the structures we were born into and live in demand we misunderstand or constrain us from understanding. I also think we restrain ourselves from understanding other cultures in order to avoid placing stress on the weaker points in our own narratives of self – or more interestingly, on the weakest seams of false consciousness – but that’s a digression.
Instead, here’s a follow-up question: You say above that your “intention with this story was to take this concept to a grim conclusion: the idea that people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own—supposedly in the interest of ‘preserving’ other ways of life, but really to keep others in subordinate roles, serving well as entertainment.” I think you do that in this story: the “grim conclusion” is very clear. Is this “grim conclusion” that “people in positions of power might know full well what they’re doing, in capping another culture’s ability to grow out of even brutal traditions on its own” something you believe is already occurring in our present world – that is, the mundane world of now – or is this concept a speculative lens you are casting on a set of tendencies you fear may be developing? How do you see it?
MLC: It's funny to revisit this story after having moved to Colombia, because its core argument has only been affirmed for me in recent firsthand experiences. For many Indigenous communities in Canada, Colombia, and even Panamá (where I spoke with displaced Emberá men just a couple months ago), the only sure pathway to economic participation is through the performance of one’s culture in ways that serve outsiders’ expectations. And yet, this performance can also entrench exploitative internal practices in the name of maintaining “tradition”—especially with respect to the women in these communities.
In Canada, when I was first forming this story, I was struck by how convoluted our mainstream discourse was around the immense number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Mainstream media didn’t know how to handle the fact that a significant number of perpetrators turned out to be Indigenous men—because in our small-minded, “blame the individual” approach to justice, this fact seemed to suggest an “internal” matter in lieu of a massive systemic nightmare.
Missing from that discourse, though—just as it is from the discourse for Indigenous communities with internal exploitation the world over—is how much these communities have been denied access to other ways of integrating heritage into the global economy. A much more life-affirming approach would be to centre Indigenous communities in education and policy-reform pathways that lead to a wider range of mainstream economic opportunities: in agriculture, natural-resource management, restorative-justice modelling, environmental sciences, and other fields of inquiry that Indigenous community leaders would be far better suited to naming for themselves.
In short, mainstream economies can eliminate the despair that leads to an entrenchment of brutal practices within marginalized communities, by providing the community members with greater agency to adapt their traditions inventively—but to do that, mainstream societies first have to be willing to give up commodifying other cultures for “edification” and entertainment.
RN: It’s certainly easier to blame the individual than it is to recognize or – even more – confront and change – structural inequalities in what I call “place time.” I find a bridge here between our ways of thinking about these issues. I’ll have to give a bit of background, though, on my “place-time” concept, which I’m pulling from another conversation:
Philip K. Dick had a simple, elegant definition of reality which I love: ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ I think this works on many levels: First of all there is the fact (yes, I take this as a fact) that things in the world exist, whether or not we perceive them: Mount Everest is there, in all its physicality, no matter what my set of beliefs is. Even if I did not know it was there, it would be real. It is real, as a thing, even in the absence of consciousness to perceive it. Everest exists in space-time. But there is another level here to reality: Human constructions are also reality. They are structures built up of ideology and traditions, laws. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They exist in place-time, the world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”
For me, these actualities are what define place-time. So, I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities . . . I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society – a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.
Here’s where I find it links to what you are saying: You said, above, that “In Canada, when I was first forming this story, I was struck by how convoluted our mainstream discourse was around the immense number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Mainstream media didn’t know how to handle the fact that a significant number of perpetrators turned out to be Indigenous men—because in our small-minded, ‘blame the individual’ approach to justice, this fact seemed to suggest an “internal” matter in lieu of a massive systemic nightmare.”
I agree with what you say, above, about our small-minded “blame the individual” approach to justice. A central question for me is, what is an individual, anyway? If I am “of” the world in which I exist, shaped by that place-time, what kind of freedom I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly – to me – the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce, and I would argue that this embeddedness and entanglement of “individuality” in place-time is something we need to hold centrally in mind when we speak of justice. Is that something you would agree with?
MLC: Oh, Ray, I agree so much with these sentiments that I wrote two novels since the publication of “Seven Ways” that explore the limits of personal culpability in relation to situational identity and social-contract theory. The first proved too bleak for agents, but that alt-history of Soviet Russia from the 1920s through 1940s (with a 1950s coda) follows three people so caught up in personal feelings of failure brought about by the systems they inhabit that all but one misses their chance to make better choices with what fleeting time they have left. The one I’m currently pitching to agents, a space-opera inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), likewise focusses on how every actor in a system is relentlessly shaped by factors outside its control—even and perhaps especially when striving to perfect the practice of moral agency on an individual level. (We’ll see how that one fares with the market!)
It’s no surprise, though, that both these books were inspired by Russian literature and its histories. I count myself deeply fortunate to have read widely from non-Western contexts, especially those in which the myth of absolute individual agency never stood a chance. Even when pitching stories to U.S.-based SF&F magazines that claim (and I think sincerely strive) to want a range of styles in the writing, I’ve noticed how poorly the work fares with certain venues whenever its characters lack at least aspirational-middle-class agency.Of course, Aliette de Bodard already made this point far better, in “The Fallacy of Agency: On Power, Community, and Erasure” (Uncanny, April 11, 2017).
Some may well argue that one of SF&F’s main goals is to be “escapist”, to imagine worlds with greater agency than the ones that we currently inhabit, but for me the best escapes are those that deal frankly with what it is we long to escape from in the first place—and which also make clear to what extent such an escape from our current social contract and “nature” is ever truly feasible.
RN: You have a narrator in this story whose gender identity is never revealed, being concealed behind the shield of the first-person narration. It’s a technique I’ve used myself, in several stories. But what really interests me is this passage: “Imbra caught me looking—the driftwood contours of his back, the sweat-drenched sinews of his neck. I didn’t mind being caught. I smiled and reclined on one of the larger specimen crates as he changed his mind about changing into something that stank less of phytoplankton. He hooked arms about me with his skinsuit half undone. . .” the scene continues, becoming an (interrupted) sex scene. This is on the first page of the narrative, and what it does, I think, is very interesting. (And by the way, “driftwood contours” is a beautiful metaphor).
There are many ways to read what you are doing here, but I’ll suggest a few possibilities: One is that you seem to be daring the reader to make a judgement about both the narrator's gender and sexuality – dangling a trap for those who are stuck in a hierarchical, binary way of thinking. Alternatively, you also seem to be inviting your reader to step through a door with you, to engage in a different way of thinking in which possibilities are left to linger, and the imagination does not need to “lock on” to definitions of gender and sexuality, resolving and shutting down the openness of the scene. Can you speak a bit about what you are doing here with this scene, and perhaps (if you are comfortable) about some of the less-than-ideal assumptions readers of the story may have made about your protagonist’s gender?
MLC: You’re absolutely right that I wanted the reader to choose their own adventure. For those reviewers who noticed the lack of pronouns, the experience ranged from confounding (because of how much gender and sexuality had been intertwined in their point of view) to straightforward (“oh, some sort of nonbinary character—moving on!”). For those who didn’t notice the lack of pronouns—or rather, who thought that the lover being male made our protagonist’s gender and sex obvious—the character was simply female from then on out, full stop.
But it’s funny how much intertextuality comes into play for any reader. When I was still publishing under “Maggie Clark”—a non-ideal choice from the outset—I would routinely have people assume that my science fiction was “about gender” in some way. Literally, whenever I was asked as an SF writer to “speak on” the genre, academics always assumed that I’d be talking about gendered—by which they meant “women’s”—themes.
Now, it’s true that all my characters are gendered (all our characters are!), but even the challenging discourses about masculinity that some of my works address were flying under the radar. After making the switch to M. L. Clark, that… stopped happening, and it was easier to re-centre discussion on the alternative justices and social-contract theory in my work.
Likewise, we writers also carry chips on our shoulders. Two years prior, I’d published a story in Analog, “We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You,” that was written in the style of longform journalism from the 2050s: a heartfelt piece following four female astronauts hurtling toward a male-populated Mars colony that Earth now knew had been irreparably damaged. The story was supposed to capture the insincerity of our infotainment media culture, by illustrating how ill-equipped it is to handle monumental tragedies. The story starts, though, with a reference to Les filles de roi, a major part of Canadian settler history in which France sends over a slew of women to sustain the colonies. And some of Analog’s readers, many fairly conservative in nature, posted about their distaste of “prostitutes” being glorified in the magazine.
I think seeing the reaction to that story’s historical opening informed my choices with respect to “Seven Ways”. One thing every author has to learn is that, once a piece has been published, they cannot control how people will interpret what’s on the page. However, if I give the rules of my universe upfront, as soon as possible, then I’ve done as much as I can to help the reader decide whether or not they want to continue with my tale.
RN: I have two questions (actually, I have dozens, but I will limit myself). The first is: You say above “When I was still publishing under ‘Maggie Clark’—a non-ideal choice from the outset—I would routinely have people assume that my science fiction was ‘about gender’ in some way. Literally, whenever I was asked as an SF writer to ‘speak on’ the genre, academics always assumed that I’d be talking about gendered—by which they meant ‘women’s’—themes.” This reminds me of a passing comment made by a professor of mine that since men are perceived to function in our culture as a “default” position, and women are the “other” position, in fact there is only one gender, in the dominant frame of thinking, because a cover-up has taken place: the male gender has been rendered “invisible,” its point of view the “default.” That’s a complicated statement, and very much embedded in a deconstructionist conversation about hierarchical binaries, but I hope you get where it is coming from, because it seems relevant here – in that there is this intertextual assumption (which I do not share, and I want to be clear I am engaging with the comment above and making no assumptions about your identity) that since you have/appeared to have the “other” identity you would be continually interested in talking about SF from an “other” perspective, while the “default” people get to just talk about whatever they like – that is, they enjoy the full range of discursive power and potential, while someone named “Maggie” is limited. And moreover, that your discourses about masculinity would go ignored. Can you talk a bit more about this?
MLC: Huge issues, aren’t they? I have an extremely nuanced position when it comes to gender in genre, because I unfortunately feel that a lot of feminized persons are also responsible for this “othering”, inasmuch as the core problem is a lack of good historiography—by which I mean, a lack of widespread recognition that we exist as part of a longstanding tradition of women writing the world. This is where having studied literary history helps a lot, because from my time in academia I’ve seen how contemporary women also perpetuate bad historiography by, say, only elevating female writers from other eras in relation to themes of femininity, role-subversion, and romance—even when those forebears were absolutely also writing incisive political commentary, or engaging in scientific and philosophical topics of a more expansive nature.
I’m not the first to make this point, of course: Eleanor Arnason, in a 2015 essay for Strange Horizons, “Me and Science Fiction: What Are We, Chopped Liver?”, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in the introductory essay for Women of Futures Past (2016), are among those who’ve recently expressed similar frustration over having to reinvent the wheel when it comes to genre historiography.
Why do we forget our history so often? In part, because it’s lucrative for writers to present themselves as “groundbreaking” on a personal level, and to promote themselves as rare, subversive commodities. Much as many Indigenous communities often find their traditions compressed into those performances that might best provide them with economic success, so too do our literary economies tacitly pigeonhole the performance of gender, on the writer’s end, because radicalizing the work through author-identity can help publishers market certain brands.
Here, too, though, we run into the same problem that mainstream Canadian media had with the reality of internal exploitation among Indigenous communities: The above statement about the commercialization of gender could very easily be taken as criticism of individual writers for following the path that best allows them to harmonize personal identity with literary success—when really, my critique lies with the socioeconomic system itself, for driving people to commodify their identities in order to succeed; and often despite the immense danger that comes with performing one’s identity in our current world.
This is part of why we saw so much anguish around Isabel Fall’s January 2020 Clarkesworld story: because some trans and nonbinary persons found the story deeply traumatizing—especially when others weaponized it against the trans and nonbinary community entirely—while other trans and nonbinary persons saw the story as an affirmation of their own, messier journeys through gender, and were crushed to see it removed.
I don’t bring my nonbinary status forward much, but I felt it was necessary, back in January, to speak in defense of many writers who felt afraid of ever writing about their own gender experiences, after witnessing how the rest of the marginalized community viewed similar stories as nothing but potential weapons against real-life safety and security; and of course, after how Fall had been compelled to out herself as trans to calm the waters at all. Such is one extremely dangerous extension of our literary economy’s commodification of personal identity—and yet, where is the better alternative? Where are the pathways that allow for other forms of thriving?
I want to be clear on one point, too, because some in the feminist sphere will accuse people like me of “hiding” behind gender-neutral initials for greater literary success… but I also refuse to be part of any lists, or answer any calls, that are predicated on gender, sex, or orientation—and in so doing, I know full well that within our current literary economy this means that I am routinely “losing out” on being able to leverage the radical act of being a feminized nonbinary queer person for specific market-shares.
However, because our culture often conflates personal choice with a condemnation of all other possible choices, I also cannot stress enough that I 100% support other people’s different views on this subject. To me, the stratification of literary calls along author-identity lines feels like falling down the rabbit-hole of Zeno’s paradox, when what I want is for us to build a culture where every single one of our 7.8 billion experiences of being human is treated as distinct. To others, though, hard-won experience has yielded the conclusion that short-term stratification through fractalized self-labelling is what we need to build a better world… and guess what? If that better world cannot contain multitudes—even highly contradictory activist multitudes!—without seeking to collapse them to the One True Way, then it’s not really a better world at all.
RN: I think your ethical commitments truly come through throughout this story, and I know you carry those over into your non-fiction essay work, which I would really invite readers to explore further. I respect your openness and searching, and how you share that with the world.
My second question: Above, you say “One thing every author has to learn is that, once a piece has been published, they cannot control how people will interpret what’s on the page. However, if I give the rules of my universe upfront, as soon as possible, then I’ve done as much as I can to help the reader decide whether or not they want to continue with my tale.” Can you talk a bit about what techniques you use to give those rules upfront?
MLC: Oh, this is so much easier than that last question! I need to begin by pointing out, though, that the idea of establishing rules at a story’s outset is a highly Anglo-Western concept, not present in a great many literary traditions. I needed to put aside my reliance on the idea that a story will establish coherent rules at the start when, say, reading Tlotlo Tsamaase’s The Silence of the Wilting Skin (2020), a Motswana tale of how colonialism degrades everything, and which routinely proposes ideas about the world that don’t hold for more than a chapter, at best.
But, lo! I write in an Anglo-Western tradition, and I strive to establish reading strategies for the work at the outset. My first rule, then, is not to write with a traditional opening “hook” if I can help it—because for me, a more gradual or complexly written introduction conveys my trust in the reader’s willingness to engage. (And, conversely, allows readers who expect to be “grabbed” by a flash-in-the-pan declaration to bounce to another story, if they so choose!) Likewise, if I want my world to be immersive, rather than one in which the reader can expect explanation of every facet along the way, I’ll make sure the opening reflects that. If the reader is supposed to suspect the narrator of bias, cause for suspicion can be found early on, too. And if I’m aiming for more of a philosophical final statement, I’ll make sure that the aesthetic is seamlessly interwoven throughout—even if only in offhand remarks until the bigger, more devastating reveals.
(This last component differs significantly from what you find, say, in a lot of Chinese science-fiction in recent translation: a story might truck along with a highly action-based rhythm for two-thirds, then put on the breaks for a massive chunk of exposition to explain the ending. Anglo-Western writers sometimes do this, too, but “didactic” writing has been so heavily stigmatized in our culture that only a few really get to use it to any great success.)
RN: I like what you say above about how “if I’m aiming for more of a philosophical final statement, I’ll make sure that the aesthetic is seamlessly interwoven throughout—even if only in offhand remarks until the bigger, more devastating reveals.” I think that is something that is done particularly well in “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” – I think the themes continually emerge from beneath the surface, like stepping-stones in a stream. It’s a real testament to craft.
There is a lovely passage where you describe the experience of Imbra, who lives out of his own time. “Imbra was in one sense hundreds of years old, having fought in the last Allegiance war and escaped in a lifepod cast adrift for generations. The temporal and cultural disconnects when he awoke could just as easily have made him bitter, obstinate. Instead they heightened his understanding of his own weaknesses.” As someone who has lived extensively outside of my own country, this really resonated with me – especially the idea of a heightening of the understanding of one’s own weaknesses being a kind of wisdom. I like also the ambivalence here – the way his culturotemporal dislocation is described as something that could go either way. Can you talk a little about this theme, which I see elsewhere in your story as well?
MLC: I’m so glad you enjoyed Imbra’s character, because I loved him so much I went back and wrote a prequel story, “Belly Up”, which was published in Analog’s July/August 2017 issue, and again in Neil Clarke’s year’s best anthology. This story is all about weakness: in three movements, we follow Imbra as he uses his vulnerability to survive in situations with escalating stakes. I never go so far to suggest that weakness is strength, though, because none of his escapes reflect a person thriving—and indeed, at the end, he still loses everything to save himself.
But “Belly Up” was also one of those stories I alluded to elsewhere in our chat: a work that uses an SF context to explore complex masculinities. I believe that our genre needs to think better about how to apply notions of rehabilitative and restorative justice to people (usually men) who transgress to unconscionable extremes. Some recent, retributive fictions in SF&F have certainly felt restorative to many readers, but to me they’re often replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor. My hope is that they’re mere stepping-stones to better dreaming down the line.
In any case, at that prequel’s outset, Imbra has been “declawed” as punishment for a crime, meaning that he no longer has the hormonal reactivity necessary to protect himself once he’s released from state custody. He’s literally put at the mercy of other people’s ability to control their own anger toward him for what he’s done. Now, this circumstance changes for Imbra after he wakes into the era of “Seven Ways”—but in all times and contexts, Imbra remains a person who has had to learn to lean into his fragility to survive. Really glad that this came through.
RN: It’s difficult not to digress into discussing “Belly Up” too much, after that explication. There’s so much to talk about there. But instead, I’d like to return to this point you make: “I believe that our genre needs to think better about how to apply notions of rehabilitative and restorative justice to people (usually men) who transgress to unconscionable extremes. Some recent, retributive fictions in SF&F have certainly felt restorative to many readers, but to me they’re often replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor. My hope is that they’re mere stepping-stones to better dreaming down the line.” How, exactly, do you think restorative justice can be applied by “our” genre? When you say “retributive fictions,” can you give us some examples of what you mean, and some examples of how you view them as “replicating the very violence that they claim to abhor?” Finally – are there good examples you have found yet of “better dreaming?”
MLC: I’m going to begin by reiterating that while I have strong personal views about justice in genre-writing, those views aren’t a condemnation of others for taking different approaches. Works like Brooke Bolander’s 2016 Nebula- and Hugo-nominated “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” and Alyssa Wong’s 2015 Nebula-winning “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” simply left me cold when they flattened their prey—men who hurt women—to two-dimensional figures deserving of unlimited torture. Those who found these stories empowering would argue that this was the point: to treat these toxic men the same way that similar in the real world treat victims. For me, though, this illustrates how our work often replicates instead of transcending trauma.
Similarly, N. K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (How Long Til Black Future Month? , 2018), which operates in critical response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (New Dimensions 3, 1973), tries to imagine a better utopia, messier but striving; and yet—in a way no different from mainstream SF&F franchises like Star Wars—the supposedly better land of Um-Helat can’t seem to arrive at restorative outcomes without first killing a man for having transgressed: “the only mercy possible”. Unlike “Omelas”, this tale doesn’t simply present its egregious societal underpinning for reader contemplation, but rather, works to assure us that this is the only way, then entreats us to stay and be a part of it.
We do have alternatives, though. John Chu’s “Probabilitea” (Uncanny, May/June 2019) grapples honestly and openly with the protagonist’s desire to use her powers to murder white supremacists… and then has her find a different solution. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) likewise offers redemption arcs that have to be earned—but which, along with solutions for the most heinous of criminals, don’t require the taking of further life. And of course, Star Trek at its Trekkiest sought better justice through the sheer act of holding different perspectives in tension. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds (trans. Ken Liu) all build on that principle wonderfully, by requiring their readers to experience a multitude of subject-positions when thinking about how best to build better societies. When Star Trek: Discovery returned to that narrative style in season three, by turning all the brutal and shock-value violence of the first two seasons into the foundation for discourses on trauma that allow for multiple approaches to healing… I felt hopeful. I think there is a lot that we’re already doing in SF&F to establish that vocabulary for “better dreaming” in the real world.
RN: As we discussed elsewhere, I have a hundred other questions I could ask you – you’ve given me a myriad of angles to consider further, but I’d like to end here, on this very positive note of your wish for “better dreaming” and all that entails for our genre. And with your permission, I’m going to steal that phrase, and use it as the title of this entire series of conversations. I certainly cannot think of a better one.
MLC: Thanks so much for this opportunity, Ray. What I enjoyed most about this experience was that you provided a way for the work to open into a fuller conversation about the cultures that surround text, creator, and reader alike. For me, this is the greatest honour that any story can achieve. I look forward to following the rest of the conversations in your series.
Next Month: Don’t miss Julie Nováková and our conversation about her story, “The Ship Whisperer”.