This month’s discussion is with David Mercurio Rivera (who writes as “Mercurio D. Rivera”) on his excellent story “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, which first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Asimov’s, and which offers us a starting off-point for speaking about many things – from the ethics of medical experimentation to Spider Man. The story is currently a finalist for the Asimov's Readers' Award in the novelette category, and can be found here. Enjoy!
RN: First of all, David, thank you for agreeing to do this. I really appreciate your support of this fledgling effort to encourage long-form, in-depth conversation about our field. And I want to say two things up front: One is that I loved “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” and can’t stop thinking about it. The other is that I thought this was one of the most depressing stories I have read in a long time. Anything that can engender those two strong, and seemingly antithetical, responses in me has real power, I think.
MDR: As a writer, I’m sure you know that’s the ultimate compliment: that someone has read your story and it’s made an impact and made them think. So, thank you. It’s my pleasure and honor to promote in-depth conversation about short speculative fiction—and depress the hell out of you, as necessary.
RN: My first question: "Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars" immediately made me think of "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon, which I luckily re-read recently. Tell me about the link between the two stories. The references are clear, and in many ways this seems like a sophisticated, up-to-the-moment update of "Microcosmic God", moving it from the from the sadistic, mid-Century industrial capitalism of its time to the perhaps even more sadistic structures of postmodern late capitalism and the gig / “like” economy. Can you talk a bit about the connection between the two stories (assuming, in your mind, there is one) and how "Microcosmic God" informed "Beyond the Tattered Veil"?
MDR: You’re not going to believe this, Ray, but I’ve never read a single word of Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God.” When Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams accepted the story, she also assumed it was riffing off of the Sturgeon story. And reviewer Rich Horton similarly described “Tattered Veil” as “in the lineage” of “Microcosmic God.” (I really should get around to reading it!). The germ of the idea for the story actually came from two sources: my interest in the ethics of animal experimentation, sacrificing lower life forms for the good of supposedly higher ones, and the Simulation Hypothesis, which posits that the Universe is nothing more that a simulation programmed by a higher intelligence. Looking back at the story after it was finished, I do think I might have been subconsciously influenced by another classic story: George R.R. Martin’s “Sand Kings,” which also involves the escalating torture of an alien life form. But I did try to ramp up the ethical quandary: the torture of the holographic “Sallies” isn’t motivated by pure sadism, at least initially, but for noble purposes. But then, as you notice, it does veer into the sadism sometimes engendered by modern capitalist culture with the Sallies being exploited for profit. Readers have confessed to feeling guilty about being drawn to the different types of torture inflicted on the Sallies’ society. I thought this was very cool on a meta-level since my protagonist, Cory, is a reporter who tortures the simulated beings to attract more readers. I considered Cory’s readers a stand-in for the readers of “Tattered Veil.” I’ll admit to injecting the suffering, and the action sequences, to keep my readers reading. I guess that makes me no better than Cory, in a way.
RN: I think you’re far from being Cory, given no Sallies were actually harmed in the making of your story (unless there is something I don’t know about! I have to say – it’s extraordinary that this story emerged in the way it did without you having read “Microcosmic God” – there are so many clear parallels between the two. I think a reading of either one of them is enriched by a reading of the other – if for no other reason, then as an examination of how the incentives of capitalism have shifted over time but remain fundamentally flawed in the actions they reward and channel people toward. And yes – it’s very interesting in the story how the initial motivations of the characters are more “noble,” and then over time are degraded into sadism by the system of incentives the characters are enmeshed in.
At the same time, it is interesting to me that from the start there is an ingrained contempt for the “Sallies” – a contempt that is reflected in the dismissive name attributed to them – a name that reads as derogatory and diminishing – comparing them explicitly to an “inferior” animal, the equivalent of them calling us “Monkeys.” The willingness to inflict harm to the “Sallies” in the name of progress, while being fully cognizant of their conscious nature and the suffering caused, was distressing to me from the start of my reading – as I am sure you intended it to be. It communicates a powerful sense of alienation from others which is symptomatic of both racism and contempt for other sentient beings in general. So, in that way, it is an extraordinarily powerful exploration of the moral quandaries of animal testing.
And I might go further: I immediately thought of the Tuskegee Study – the contempt it demonstrated to those victimized by it, and the justifications of working toward a “greater good” used (even down to the present moment) in an attempt to explain or excuse its unethical, racist reality. Was this something you had in mind as well?
You can see how making all these connections in my mind made this story so powerful – and extraordinarily depressing. Even the state the characters move from (their state at the beginning of the story) is a state of alienation and species-contempt – though balanced to a degree by “noble” (I feel compelled to put that word in scare quotes because it seems so attenuated by that underlying contempt) goals.
MDR: There is definitely a sense of species-ism that permeates the story. The term “Sallies” does seem like a typical pejorative slur. In fact, the female scientist scoffs at the comparison of the suffering in her simulation to the suffering of the real world. She asks: would it be ethical not to conduct research that could save so many lives in our world, children suffering from cancer, displaced coastal communities ravaged by climate change? In her mind, it’s a no-brainer. Obviously I wanted the readers to feel the opposite, which is why I used the alternating threads that allowed us to see the point of view of the suffering subjects of her research.
I didn’t have the Tuskegee Study specifically in mind when I wrote the story, probably because conducting secret experiments on human beings is so far over the line that it didn’t present any sort of interesting moral question to me. But you’re absolutely right that the rationalization for that kind of heinous conduct very much mirrors the conduct of the human characters in “Tattered Veil.” It becomes more morally palatable (or at least morally fuzzier) to the torturer/experimenter if they can rationalize that the subject of their experiment is less than human, so their pain and suffering doesn’t matter. Torturing a lab rat or a simulation is justifiable if the end goals are “noble,” so the thinking goes.
RN: Certainly one of the story’s more compelling aspects is initially holding up that “nobility” and then stripping it away, layer by layer. Here’s my next question: One of the things that is really interesting to me about this story is the way in which we initially want to sympathize with the main character -- in fact, I think we are lured into sympathizing with him -- but by the end of the story, he becomes as clearly abhorrent as the rest of the (Earth) characters are in the story -- and there are some truly abhorrent characters in the story.
MDR: The human characters certainly behave in an appalling way because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, but I’d like to think they’re not inherently abhorrent people. Milagros is driven by a truly noble purpose: she wants to rid the world of disease, solve climate change, and keep the planet safe. What could be more altruistic? And Cory is just trying to survive. He’s living with cancer, trying to stay afloat and make a living. He also wants to bring the story of the century to the public as soon as possible for mixed motives: to help cancer sufferers like himself and to earn enough money to secure his future. Because my two main human characters have absolute power over the Sallies, absolute corruption starts to creep in. He decides to make the story more exciting and more marketable by inserting some action sequences into it. But in the end, he’s back where he’s started, alone, cancer-stricken, tormented by questions about his future.
RN: I think it speaks to the high quality of this story, and to your skill as a writer, that these characters are far from being one-dimensional. They are, especially in the case of Cory, extraordinarily complex. Their motivations are clear, they feel justifiable (in the sense that you can see their self-justification and follow its logic) and in the case of Milagros, it is certainly clear that the intent is to help humanity – and to help it significantly.
The way, then, in which those motivations are initially tangled with the alienations of their society, and then are driven to sadism and complete contempt, is fascinating. To focus on one twisted incentive that figures in the story: health care. Cory’s attempts to stay afloat are largely related to a lack of health care and his battle with cancer. Can you speak specifically about how you view the current health care situation in the U.S. and how you constructed this story around a critique of that?
MDR: As someone who’s navigated the healthcare system for sick family members, I’ve seen up close how, without someone to advocate for you, things can go wrong fast. And they’ve been fortunate in that they at least have healthcare. For those in our dysfunctional system who have healthcare, it’s often tied to your job. As a result, people sometimes stay in jobs they hate for fear of losing their health coverage and being bankrupted by a sudden injury or illness. Important life decisions are being made based on fear.
Before the story begins, Cory has experienced homelessness and terrible suffering as a result of his illness. It’s understandable (though not excusable) when he goes so far as to inflict terrible death and suffering on simulated beings for his own economic security.
RN: I agree: it is perfectly understandable, and remains inexcusable, a quandary which really lies at the heart of this story – the way, again, in which twisted incentives drive twisted actions. As discussed a bit above, It becomes clear as the story goes on that the characters, in many ways, lack agency: they are driven to their despicable actions by a system of (again, late capitalist) incentives that dehumanize and entrap them. There's no clear opportunity to be good -- everything in the structure of their (our) society channels them toward exploitative behaviors. How much do you, as a writer, believe in individual responsibility and agency, and how are those beliefs reflected in "Tattered Veil"?
MDR: Even though the human characters in the story have reasons for the terrible things they do, they aren’t relieved of personal responsibility and both pay a terrible price. Milagros (which translates as “miracles” in Spanish, btw) pays the ultimate price, and Cory is once again on a path to becoming destitute, afflicted by a recurrence of his cancer and hurled into an existential crisis. (There’s nothing more satisfying than a good comeuppance.)
In terms of capitalism gone wrong, the simulation tech that’s being used, as we ultimately come to learn, is stolen technology owned by a conglomerate unlikely to simply release those inventions to the public. More likely, the corporation will monopolize the product and control its distribution to maximize its profits. This drives Milagros’s behavior.
It’s funny you honed in on this question of agency since that’s what I was hoping the reader would be wondering about: how much agency do any of us really have in our own lives? Do we have control? Or are we puppets dancing to the whims of outside forces? Yes, outside forces help shape us -- in this story quite literally – and that can be a depressing thought. But we do all bear personal responsibility for our actions nonetheless. At least the Sallies provide some small measure of hope, showing agency and taking control of the situation. Their arc, stretching out over generations--from blind devotees, to the conquerors of their Gods and crafters of their own destiny--is pretty incredible and inspiring. (Let’s all stay positive and ignore the fact they’re experimenting on their own simulations, okay?)
RN: Yes – in order to stay positive, we’ll avoid talking about that layer, though I love that it is there. And the Sallies showing agency, and taking control over their own destiny, really is the part of the story that is hopeful. In that sense, there is a distinctly “post-human” flavor to the tale: if humanity is not capable of taking on the challenge of breaking free, humanity’s creating will – and will sweep past humanity and move upward through the spiral of worlds to “find the gods’ gods and bring them to justice” – an extraordinary ambition, and one that brings to mind another connection I kept coming back to: Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism – specifically the Gnostic concept of emanations, and the degraded Demiurge, the god of the material, human world, often depicted foolish or even malevolent. The later scenes of “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” remind me very much of Philip K. Dick’s sophisticated and strange Gnostic take on the universe. How much do you see that connection? Or were you drawing from other sources? Am I seeing a Philip K. Dick connection where none exists, like the earlier one to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God”?
MDR: I haven’t read PKD in a long time, so I can’t say I was influenced by those Gnostic concepts. But I can see the connection now that you mention it. The Gods have Gods who have Gods. The fact that the God directly above you is malevolent does gibe with that concept of the degraded Demiurge. The end of “Tattered Veil” was inspired by the recent scientific theory that the Universe is nothing more than a simulation. And once you have some higher intelligence programming all of reality as we know it, the next question has to be who the heck is programming their reality. It’s a simple nesting doll concept, only stretching into infinity in both directions.
RN: The simulation hypothesis isn’t one I found particularly compelling – at least until reading this story, which I think makes excellent use of the moral quandaries it poses. Which brings me to a question that, perhaps, is fundamental for any writer of science fiction: What, exactly, is the position of science in science fiction? I’ve said elsewhere that, in my own opinion, SF is not predictive, it is predicative. It uses the raw materials of science not as a set of facts, necessarily, but as grounds for a shift in the world upon which it predicates (founds or bases something on) a set of events, often using that predication in a parallel manner as commentary upon the present world. That seems to me to be the way science is being used here: it isn’t important, fundamentally, whether the simulation hypothesis is true: the way it appears to function in your story is as a looking glass with which to view human behavior and ethical concerns that are fundamentally “here and now.” Does that seem like a fair way of framing your use of science here? And is that consistent across your work, or are there other ways you use it in other stories?
MDR: Yes, for me, that’s the essence of science fiction, exploring questions about the here and now through the funhouse mirror of possible futures. I don’t usually provide answers, mind you, but I do love exploring the questions. (I’ve found that readers usually supply their own answers based on whatever it is they take away from my stories.) I enjoy reading scientific journals, watching documentaries on the Science Channel, learning about recent discoveries in astronomy and the newest theories in cosmology. This is an especially exciting time because of the incredible advancements made in the study of exoplanets. With the launch of the Webb Telescope, we’ll soon be studying the atmospheres of exoplanets to hunt for signs of life. All amazing stuff. I do think we owe it to our readers to get those kinds of details right if we’re going to include them in our stories. We can hand-wave away elements that are inconsistent with our present-day knowledge of science, but it’s important to be knowledgeable enough to know exactly what needs to be hand-waved away. I attended both “LaunchPad” in Wyoming and “The Schroedinger Sessions” in Maryland, workshops which provide sci-fi writers a crash course in astronomy and quantum physics, respectively. Yes, all of this provides the “raw material” upon which we can build our stories. But I agree it’s really not so much about predicting the future as it is about using possible futures to shine a light on the present.
I’m fairly consistent with this approach across most of my stories. For example, I’ve written about a dozen stories in my Wergen Universe, which involves advanced aliens that have a weird biochemical obsession with human beings, an attraction they call “love.” In each of those stories I explore a different type of love (maternal love, romantic courtship, marital love, friendship, love for a pet, etc., etc.) and set it against this futuristic backdrop of mankind’s interactions with this alien species. The stories’ plots involve alien contact, wormhole-generating spaceships, futuristic alien technologies and planetary colonization, but that’s not what they’re about. They’re about exploring the human condition and the nature of love. (Those stories, btw, are being collected in my mosaic novel, The Love War, being published by NewCon Press later this year). In my WFA-nominated story “Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us,” we come to learn that dark magic can protect us from “terroristas,” all we need to do is capture one and subject him to endless torture. That story is not about magic or terrorism or a possible future, it’s about the dark places we’re willing to go to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and the terrible price we pay in the process. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.
RN: Please stop adding to my already daunting reading list, David. But seriously – congratulations on the upcoming publication! That novel sounds fantastic. And I completely agree with what you say above about owing it to our readers to get the details right for me it’s more about verisimilitude than strict accuracy, but as I say that I also realize that I have done a doctorate’s amount of hard science research for the novel I recently drafted, so there is a tension there, for me: I want absolute accuracy, combined with predicative freedom. That’s a complexity, most likely, best left for another conversation.
Here is a question that is a bit more related to craft: One of the things I love about the story is the offhand mention of larger things -- in the end, tremendously larger, but initially just asides, like this one: “’Asteroid defense? I’m surprised EncelaCorp hasn’t figured that out by now,’ he said. The conglomerate was streaming the consciousness of astronauts into outer space and exploring rogue planets; asteroid defense seemed simple in comparison.” These asides do a great job of suggesting a universe that is much wider than this slice we are dealing with. How does this relate to how you, as a writer, build atmosphere in your work?
MDR: I love these types of asides in the science fiction I read as well. I try to insert sentences like these in all of my stories as a world-building tool. I like to think of them as writing “brushstrokes.” In this case, however, it was a much easier lift because I was referencing an earlier story I published with Asimov’s called “Unreeled” in which an astronaut working for EncelaCorp has her psyche projected into a black hole and is then reeled back into our universe. To her husband she appears slightly different, alien in sinister ways he can’t quite identify, but he’s not the most reliable narrator since their marriage was already on the rocks for some time. Also, “EncelaCorp” is my stand-in for “the Great Big Evil Corporation.” I’ve used the company name in about half a dozen or more of my stories. To those who catch the reference to “Unreeled,” I thought they might be amused to realize they’re reading a story in the same universe. To those unfamiliar with the prior story, I hoped it would have the effect you described, creating the sense this is part of a much larger world.
RN: I like the term “brushstrokes” for this kind of hinting at a larger universe in short work. I talk about this a bit as well in a blog I did for Asimov’s on atmosphere. I think it’s very effective when done right: it gives a sense of something just over the horizon – or, in this case, links to another work of your own, allowing readers that feeling of this story taking place within a larger context.
MDR: Absolutely. I like the way you put it in your column: a suggestive detail that creates the feeling of “a world just beyond the page.” It’s amazing how the author can just drop a little hint and the reader’s mind rushes to fill in the rest. (You do an amazing job of this yourself, by the way, in “Return to the Red Castle,” which appeared in the same issue of Asimov’s as “Tattered Veil.” It’s an affecting story with off-the-charts world-building!)
Thank you! I’m very glad you like “Return to the Red Castle” and that it has that sense, for you, of “a world just beyond the page.” That is such an important concept, for me. Another question on craft: One of the things that really makes this story work is the way the realistic depiction of the characters. I think “Microcosmic God,” for example, does this very poorly. Like a lot of so-called “Golden Age” SF (and I am generalizing – this is certainly not always true), its ideas are brilliant, but their delivery is often made wooden by the caricature-like or puppet-like depiction of the actual people involved. Not so here – as I mentioned above, I think these characters are very finely drawn. How important is character to you? And how do you create characters?
MDR: I’ll confess that nailing down my characters is the most challenging part of writing for me. My stories tend to start off with the germ of an idea (in this case “what if we lived in a simulated universe and all of our suffering was programmed?”) and then I outline relentlessly until I come up with a plot. My first drafts tend to have all the right story beats pretty much in place. But then the next ninety-three drafts are devoted to fleshing out my characters. It’s not easy for me. (I’m not sure about you, but I know many other writers start off with the characters and then work in the opposite direction to develop their plot). The beta readers in my amazing writers group, Altered Fluid, always help tremendously. In this story, my characters’ gender, background, motivation and relationship all changed drastically with each draft.
Speaking of craft challenges, in a third-person story, I made a conscious decision to switch over to first-person for some of the entries in the historical chronicles of the simulated people. I felt it was necessary to help make the reader truly empathize with their suffering. Being told about their plight isn’t quite as affecting as experiencing the scene with their legendary foremother, who’s comforting her dying daughter in her final moments. I wasn’t sure switching to first-person would work. And it’s not something I would have dared to even try a few years ago.
It’s curious how the simulated world in the story is subjected to a global pandemic to test its ingenuity and resolve—at the exact same time we were being tested. The story was published in March/April of 2020, just as our country was going on lockdown.
RN: It really is a curious coincidence – perhaps our own gods will find better vaccines for the plagues on their world once all of this is over. I hope they get what they want from us, and don’t just ramp up the torture.
But seriously, I am surprised to hear you say that you have difficulty with character: it stands out for me as a strength, so you are certainly doing a good job of concentrating on your weaknesses, to the degree where I would say the characters are fully as interesting as the concepts.
I do think the third person / first person juxtaposition was an excellent choice: first person draws us closer to the “Sallies” and, in a sense, may help the reader overcome their own “speciesism.” Two questions for you: what other narrative lessons did you learn from this story that you find yourself applying elsewhere? And what works influence you most as a writer? What was formative for you? I keep trying to guess at your inspiration and failing, so I would love to hear more about what you are drawing on.
Despite the familiar refrain about showing not telling, I’m always struggling to find that right balance. I’ve impressed when a master like Ursula K. LeGuin can just “tell” to her heart’s content and sweep us along on amazing journeys through alien societies. In “Tattered Veil” I similarly wanted to “tell” the history of the Sallies and their matriarchal society, the suffering experienced over generations by a single family, and the betrayal by their Gods. But what LeGuin makes look so easy is actually really challenging, which is why I resorted to some first-person inserts.
As I mentioned above, my characters changed significantly from draft to draft, but I’m glad I landed where I did with my protagonist/villain Milagros Maldonado, giving her a Puerto Rican background. My family is of Puerto Rican/Spanish descent and they’re always proud when a Boricua shows up in unexpected places. (One of my uncles always told a story about encountering a Puerto Rican-owned café somewhere on the edge of the Sahara Desert.) Likewise, in my novelette “In The Stillness Between the Stars” my Puerto Rican protag places a call to San Juan from across the Solar System to speak with the young son he left behind. My upcoming Asimov’s story “Filaments” features a Venezuelan protag. It’s always fun to spice up the stories by adding characters with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Influences? LeGuin is amazing; I loved Borges. I enjoyed reading the usual suspects: Niven, Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury. I love Nancy Kress, Kelly Link and (fellow Altered Fluidian) N.K. Jemisin. On the literary side, I went through phases where I devoured John Steinbeck, Jane Austin and, more recently, John Irving. Probably my most formative influence as a kid was burying my head in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Silver Age Marvel comics. The humanity of those characters drew me in. In fact, I can point to one scene in one issue that had the greatest impact on me, and is probably why I’m a writer today. In Amazing Spider-Man # 122, the iconic “Death of Gwen Stacy” issue written by Gerry Conway, there’s an epilogue, a single page, which rocked my world. After the shocking death of his girlfriend, a weepy Peter Parker is approached by Mary Jane Watson, who’s trying to comfort him. He rips into her, saying cruel things about how she wouldn’t care if her own mother died. As she’s about to leave the room in tears, she pauses, lifts her chin, and stays with him. My 12-year old brain struggled to fill in all the blanks, to get inside their heads. I couldn’t understand. Why was the good guy being so cruel? Then it hit me: he was racked with grief, saying one thing, but meaning something else entirely. And she had understood this.
New writers make the mistake of having their characters always be honest. It’s way more interesting when they’re lying to themselves, when they say one thing and we all know they mean something else. One of my favorite novels is Dune, and I especially love that element of it: characters consistently saying one thing and meaning something else.
RN: That’s a well-rounded set of influences, ranging from “high” literature to what has been sometimes dismissed as “low-brow.” Like you, I grew up reading from a range of genres, and I have been as influenced, probably, by comics, film, and painting as I have by books proper.
I feel like there are endless alleyways we could go down, and so much left for us to discuss – “a world just beyond the page” of other ideas to explore. But this seems like a good place to wind up, with that scene from Spider Man and a reminder of the connection between your 12 year old’s enlightenment and your current skill in doing the same for your readers.
Yes, let’s leave a few subjects “just beyond the page” (I have to fight the urge to say “beyond the tattered page”) to pique the readers’ interest. In the end, after all, it’s the reader who decides what the story means—no matter the author’s intentions.
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.
Thanks for inviting me to participate, Ray.