This month I have the honor of conversing with R.S.A. Garcia about her novelette “The Sun from Both Sides” – a great story that provides plenty to talk about.
RN: First of all, thank you for agreeing to take part in Better Dreaming and to support this fledgling effort in extended conversation about science fiction. I really enjoyed reading “The Sun from Both Sides”. There is plenty to talk about, so let’s get started! First of all, readers should know there will be spoilers: we’re having a conversation about a whole story, not just half of one. I highly recommend you begin by reading the story itself here.
First of all, I’d like to talk about structure. The story is divided into two halves. In the first narrative arc, a woman saves the man she loves. In the second half of the story, the man she saved saves her. I should note I am reducing the complexity here, but it seems we can divide the tale this way, and that the “agency” of the story divides this way pretty well. Instead of one protagonist, we have two. Or, I might say, instead of two protagonists, we have one joint protagonist: a couple in love with one another. And I love how the first line of the story gives us a clear guide to what is to come: “Once, a woman loved a man, and a man loved a woman.” Can you tell us a bit about this structure, and why you chose it, and how it relates, for you, to the content and theme of the story you wanted to tell?
RSAG: Before I begin, I want to thank you for inviting me to converse with you, for reading my story and for giving writers a chance to do something we love to do - talk about our stories!
I have always loved structure as part of storytelling; as a tool that both reflects the nature of what the story is telling us, and a clue to the audience about where we've been, what was important there, and where we're headed. You are quite insightful in your comments because what came to me in Sun first was this couple that had the kind of love you rarely see. An unselfish melding of two lives that prioritized acceptance and partnership. I saw their quiet lives and wondered what had led them to create this wonderful bubble together, and I knew immediately that it had to do with his past and her protectiveness of him, of anyone she loves really.
I initially wondered if I shouldn't publish the first part of the story as a standalone, then write and publish the second half. But when my sister, my brilliant beta reader, got her hands on the beginning, she told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn't finished. That gave me confidence that the right step was to write the rest out immediately. I've played with three act structure, five act structure and a host of others in my writing, and here I wanted to try for two acts, and two protagonists. On reflection, that helped mirror the tale I wanted to tell of how love can bring individual souls together, how it changes us and how that change can ripple outward into the world, and inward into our lives, ripples on pond-water, heading out and in at the same time--Eva and Dee, Dee and Alexandar, Eva and Sister and on and on.
RN: I want to pick up on what you said above about “An unselfish melding of two lives that prioritized acceptance and partnership.” I’d like to dig into that a little deeper with you if you don’t mind. It seems to me to be an uncommon view of love, in a world saturated with media-driven romantic ideas of seduction, adventure, and shallow drama as the primary features of love. Can you talk a bit more about this, and why this quiet, firm love is the love you chose to write about here? What made you want to write about this under-represented type of love?
I also noticed, when searching the title of your story, that it is drawn from a David Viscott quote. I wasn’t familiar with David Viscott – he’s certainly a complex figure, a pop psychiatrist who offered simple solutions but whose own life was messy and complicated. The full quote is: “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides”. Can you talk a little bit about the quote, and why you chose it as the title of this story? I have to say, I think it is a perfect fit, and I feel as if I understand the story better now that I have seen the full quote – kudos to you for an excellent title selection.
RSAG: I'm a tremendous fan of romance in all its forms, but I've had some time to see the many ways in which only certain types of love were spoken about fondly, over and over again. Sometimes it's about who gets to be seen as romantic and worthy of love - I had no people of color in my library's romance offerings as a teenager, and no idea there was a world of gender and sexuality beyond the binary for a long time. And I was always struck by the way the media ignores love between older people. There's also the idea that romantic love can only be sexy or beautiful or intimate in certain ways. I adore steamy, passionate, sexual love, but growing up, the most stable couple in my life was my grandparents. They'd been married so long, they slept in separate beds. But they had this way of sitting together, completely silent, for ages, and then my grandmother - the garrulous type - would say something, like they'd been talking, and my grandfather - the strong, silent type - would smile and nod and they'd go back to their silent conversation. The night before I started writing Sun, I read an incredible polyamorous romance by Sierra Simone that reminded me of the beauty of that kind of accepting, loving partnership, and I woke from a dream struck with the image of a woman waiting in a forest for her husband to return.
And now I have a confession. Titling stories is a difficult thing for most writers, and with me, because I write without an outline - just a beginning and ending firm in my mind, and some key points in the middle. I often don't even know what the story is until my final edit, when I have spotted and hopefully refined all the themes, ideas etc. Most times, I don't title my story before it's done; the title then usually comes to me on its own. This was one of the few times Google was my friend, as I couldn't come up with anything. I wanted to find something that captured the feeling of a love that didn't judge or possess, but also remained sexual and intimate because I felt that was what was at the core of Eva and Didecus and the story, and part of what I wanted to talk about. That we are our best selves when we care for each other without expectation of anything but caring in return. That being old doesn't mean we can't be more in love than ever. When I came across the quote, I knew immediately it was the one. You are quite right in that when I used that quote, it was a huge pointer to what in the story mattered most.
RN: Another fun thing about this project has been hearing about how different writers begin a story – some with elaborate outlines, others with more of a sketch, some with only the beginning, or a title. No matter which way, the best stories always feel, to me, as if they were “meant to be” as if they could be nothing else other than the end state reached. I definitely see that with “The Sun from Both Sides”, and while you may have found the title late in the work, it is a perfect fit, and I can imagine no other.
I have to agree! That's how they feel to me too, and as a writer, I'm always searching for that elusive feeling when polishing. I want that sense of rightness when I read over the final product. Like every word is sunk in the earth and mortared into its rightful place.
We talked above about the two distinct halves of the story, but there is another bifurcation in this story worth mentioning. While being filled to the brim with high-concept SFnal elements, there is a strong flavor of fantasy to the story – the structure of Valencian society, for example, is filled with fantasy allusions and at the same time fully science fictional. And the story starts out in a very fairy-tale style, but moves quickly toward technological space-opera style action. Can you talk a little about the science fiction and fantasy genres, what they mean to you, and how you used (or did not use) the interplay between them in “The Sun from Both Sides”?
RSAG: I've always identified myself as a speculative fiction author precisely because I love all elements of speculative fiction. I write mostly in scifi and fantasy, or a blend of both, but I love horror and the paranormal, mystery and romance, all the so-called commercial genres really. For me, they are all part of storytelling, and that is what I love most about writing. I was raised on that peculiarly West Indian diet of British/Commonwealth literary classics, black post-colonial and post-modern fiction, mythology and legends from every part of the globe, but especially from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe because my own society had some of its roots in those lands. My ancestors included the enslaved and indentured who survived unimaginable brutality, discrimination and hate with the help of song and dance, story and spirituality. We passed our tales on through oral histories when we were forbidden to write or read. I had a visceral connection to material that speaks of spirituality, magic, the unknown. I could imagine my ancestors would have known all three, in positive and negative forms, both in their homelands and in the Caribbean nations that became their new homes.
But I was also a child of those ancestors who fought to survive so that their children could have better lives. I was drawn to the idea of building a better future, through the fascinating stories I read, and by virtue of having had a grandmother who was the child of a woman born on the plantation that enslaved her mother; a grandmother that embraced all progress and education as the way out of poverty and passed that on to my mother. When I imagine futures, they cannot be clinical technological spaces for me. They spring from communities, histories, spiritualities, connections to the past through to the future. Even though slavery took their names and identities, my ancestors arts, stories, societies, and those of their homelands, are a throughline to me that I continue in my work.
To me, the separation of scifi and fantasy is a line I like to blur because they feel like two sides of a conversation about 'what if'. I firmly believe in that old adage that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic. But most of all, I believe that what we think of as 'magic' is probably rules of the universe we do not yet understand. For me, science is our way to explain how the universe and nature works, and technology is our attempt to recreate or control it. But that means the natural universe already does many things our technology cannot, and that science cannot explain. Birds fly when we must build machines. Black holes and gamma rays exist. A frog can change its sex if the survival of its species is in danger. Yet we believe 'magic' is illogical, and science is all knowing. I like reading and writing stories that give magic and science the logic and mystery of the natural universe, that lift up the connection to nature and ground science in humility.
RN: I really like that idea of lifting up the connection to nature and grounding science in humility. In a world where we face a large degree of ignorant reactions against science as well as an ignorant, bowdlerized understanding of what science is, I think that kind of humility is deeply needed.
RSAG: Perhaps I’m naïve, but I feel like many scientists and people who work in science and technology are so much more humble and endlessly curious than the deeply incurious and cynical people who make money off their discoveries. I think the more you learn about the universe, the more you must be awed by the commensurate depth of our ignorance of how it all works. I think all the time about how astronauts speak of understanding how precious this planet is, how small and fragile, when they see the Earth from space. When I write, I try to pass a little of that on to the reader. A little of the awe of looking at this vast, complex, always changing universe that can be treacherous and unconcerned with our tiny goals, but that remains endlessly beautiful. Forever our home and giver of our very lives.
RN: I don’t think that’s naïve at all. It is my experience that nearly all of the great scientists ground their work in humility and boundless curiosity: That seems to me to be what is at the core of true science (as opposed to its popularized version, or its applied / exploited version). And I wholeheartedly agree that the more we learn about the universe (at least this is true for me) the more its depth and immeasurability awes. Science is a search for truth, but that search is nearly endless, and carries with it, I believe, a sense of respect for the mystery, and for our small place within it. I subscribe to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s definition of truth as “what lies at the limit of inquiry.” He defined truth as “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” – he saw science as a slow, collective effort toward revelation, with each dedicated scientist working to push further toward that ultimate understanding of the universe, never fully realizing it, but stripping away falsehood and distortion to move one layer closer. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at science and its relation to truth and inquiry. Truth is what we strive for: its revelation is in the future, but we can move closer to it together, through honest engagement.
Speaking of beautiful things, I love this paragraph, which elegantly illustrates one of the main themes of the story:
“He found allies and a wife and more enemies than he ever knew possible, but he didn’t forget what it was to be un-Septed. How it felt to have no control over whether he ate or starved, whether he had a life of purpose or not. He knew this to be wrong. He knew Valencia to be unfair. And he wanted, more than anything to change that, and to protect the people under his care for as long as he could.”
The story is, from beginning to end, a story about justice in many forms. Can you tell me a bit about where the inspiration came from for the Valencian power structures, the Coretrees, and the stratified world constructed around them?
RSAG: My backstory for the Grandmasters is that various nations from the Caribbean struck out on their own after societal and climate upheavals made staying on Earth impossible. A combined fleet of smaller, poorer islands, their ships were rigidly controlled by military forces and leaders from richer Western countries, as well as their own. The colonists in this age are genetically or technologically adapted for the rigors and dangers of long-term space travel, which grants them abilities like longer lives and less susceptibility to space radiation etc. But the ships of the Grandmasters were stratified so a lot of its passengers were crew to serve the needs of the ship and its leaders, and those who paid for their passage. On those long journeys, the West Indian love of certain games were a source of comfort for the Grandmasters, and the military leaders encouraged competitions built around Chess to help develop strategic thinking and ease the boredom of the monied class.
The Coretrees are a reflection of my belief that nature already does elegantly all the things we struggle to reproduce crudely. We know, for example, that large parts of ancient forests are actually one organism. That the largest living organism is a honey mushroom that stretches for several miles in the US state of Oregon. I imagined a world where that living organism is entangled not just physically, but on a quantum level with any part of itself. Like the Kairi in the story, who are a social democracy where every citizen has political and technological power, the Coretrees are communal and individual at the same time.
When the Grandmasters encounter the Coretrees, they don't see the forests of Valencia as a miraculous part of nature, they see a resource that will bring them the means for survival. They impose the unjust social structures of capitalism on its distribution and control, and revel in the power and riches they find without sharing them fairly, mirroring the mistakes Earth instead of building a new, better world, as the Kairi attempt to do. The Grandmasters believe in the hierarchy of blood and power because it's how they've survived, and the Kairi believe that the needs of the many must be considered before the needs of the few because of how they've succeeded. It was inevitable that the mistakes of a capitalist society would follow the Grandmasters into their new world because they start out on a foundation of believing some people are allowed to keep most of the resources needed for survival by virtue of an accident of birth, rather than by any dint of need and equitable distribution in the face of plenty. I'm also brushing up on the reality that colonialism has remained in control of this region in some unfortunate ways to this day, and I see that problem continuing in the future because we've learned the wrong lessons from our former oppressors.
RN: I love the reference to the honey mushroom. That ancient creature inspired one of my own Clarkesworld stories, the cli-fi parable “Albedo Season”. What a coincidence!
RSAG: Oh my, I've never read that! We are well met! You and I were on a bit of a wavelength with those stories. It's amazing how the same geeky facts inspire so many of us writers. And we both had unusual forests. I love your message about climate change, and the way you wove the science into the story in such an essential way. Thank you for sharing!
RN: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. And yes – well met! One of the most interesting things about this Better Dreaming series for me is the way it has helped me think through some of my own ideas, by seeing that many of the concerns I have are shared by other authors. I’ve been finding a surprising amount of kinship between us all.
You say above that “It was inevitable that the mistakes of a capitalist society would follow the Grandmasters into their new world because they start out on a foundation of believing some people are allowed to keep most of the resources needed for survival by virtue of an accident of birth, rather than by any dint of need and equitable distribution in the face of plenty. I'm also brushing up on the reality that colonialism has remained in control of this region in some unfortunate ways to this day, and I see that problem continuing in the future because we've learned the wrong lessons from our former oppressors.”
This is a statement that really resonates with me. A concern of mine lately has been the way that history repeats itself with variation. It’s a tendency that I relate to structure, and elsewhere I’ve spoken about this. I think an excellent metaphor for the way the past influences the present and future, drawn from biology again, is the Mojave Desert creosote bush. The bush is not a single, continuous organism, but rather a clonal colony. The original stem crown splits and fragments over centuries into segments, genetically identical to the original, which produce new branches along their outer edge—like a tree trunk with the center rotted away and only the outer tissue producing branches. The oldest known plant among the creosote, nicknamed “King Clone,” may have started from a seed almost 12,000 years ago. Now it is a ring of living plant tissue about 50 feet in diameter, tapped into an extensive system of roots that are both its own, living roots and the pathways of its ancient roots carved out over millennia, which have since died.
But there is more to the story: in fact, when the seeds of the creosote initially grew, they sprouted in places where the root systems of Ice-Age trees had been. Those root systems led to deep water, and following them down into that soil made it easier to get to that moisture. So now, when you look at a creosote “forest” (it’s hard to use that term for something that would rarely be more than knee-high), you are looking not only at a series of creatures who may have begun their life cycles before the Mayan pyramids were built—you are also looking at a map of an even older forest, the forest which was there before the creosote came. That primeval forest’s root pathways still inform and nurture the present structure. It is, in a sense, a “ghost forest”—but it isn’t a ghost; it is a history. This scientific fact is fascinating in itself, but it is also a metaphor, to me, for how history “haunts” and shapes the present, which grows within the system that history long ago established. Even an extinct system influences the shape of the present system.
This sense of colonial, capitalist tendencies continuing to haunt humankind long after the original societies have exhausted their resources or died away, is powerfully done here. But you also offer a solution – a return (continuing the biological metaphor) to the primeval forest itself, and a nurturing of it with a better food – not the pain of exploitation and division, but rather love. What you seem to suggest is that the old tendencies must be “rooted out” to heal the forest. Can you speak about this, and how it relates to our very real-world tendencies to stumble back into, or even re-create, the same dead-end systems those who came before us faced?
RSAG: Thank you for telling me about the creosote. It is a perfect metaphor for what I was building beneath the story, and which I think ended up coming more to the surface in the sequel/prequel to Sun, 'Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma', where I talk about the ways in which the Kairi and Eva were haunted by their own history, and the ways in which they did not learn from it, to their regret.
I love studying history, and there are few truer things than the old quote that those who don't learn from it are doomed to repeat it. It was terrifying to watch these past few years as country after country forgot how fragile and new democracy as a system of government is and began to backslide to the authoritarianism humanity relied on for millennia. This was not an accident. It was actively encouraged because governments are ultimately more concerned with exerting endless power over citizens than actively working for their benefit. It's easier to cultivate ignorance and foment division and rule over the fires and ashes than to care for each other equally, or to prioritize those that are not ourselves. Yet, in a time when we have more ability, resources and money than ever, it is inhumane that we continue to shift wealth to the wealthy, while telling those in need we cannot afford to help. There is this idea that we simply cannot shift from the inequality and exploitation of capitalism because it's aligned with good and everything else with bad. In reality, capitalism, communism, socialism…these things are theories and systems we use to try to guide economic distribution and social policy. They are not inherently good or bad. They have pros and cons. We could try to address the deficiencies in one area by shoring it up with the best ideas from another theory or system, but that essential survival mechanism of compromise is being lost in this insistence that all things are political and must be guided by political decisions. And that's quite useful for those who want to reduce power to politics, to winning and losing. I win, I get to do what I want, and I don’t have to consider anyone else. It's not how politics used to work, but in this new zero-sum world, it feels like it's some sort of permanent truth.
But that's the world of Kings and Emperors and warlords everywhere. That was the world we were working to root out. For many, we managed to move from one divinely appointed man running things to many people coming together to agree on governance. But the longing to be led and told what to think in a confusing world full of troubles and burdens, old and new, is seductive. Those hungry for power have exploited that most human reality. We wish to trust our leaders but in fact, we are ultimately responsible for them and must continually ensure they work for us. That they follow the new paths we are trying to create. If not, we are simply replacing rotted plants with more rotted plants, and the forest will die, and we will starve.
As writers of speculative fiction, I think one of the most important things we do is hold a mirror up to humanity and ask questions about what we see. The answers aren't always pleasant, but perhaps they will be honest. In this way, Sun attempted to trace the old roots of class, capitalism and exploitation, and show the ways in which it haunted Dee, but was actively fought by Eva and Dee in the end. I wanted to make a point. We don't find the way to better systems, better worlds, without fighting for it. And we fight for it by fighting for each other. By fighting to love each other and care for each other and prioritize those that most need help. It's a fight that does not end. It's always beginning, always inching forward. The moment we turn our backs on it, those that profit from power will follow the old, familiar paths of rotted roots that are doomed to fail us again.
Simply put, I think the Revolution cannot end, but it is not always outright war. It is, however, at its best, always rooted in love.
RN: I love this idea: “We don't find the way to better systems, better worlds, without fighting for it. And we fight for it by fighting for each other. By fighting to love each other and care for each other and prioritize those that most need help.” That really seems like the key. I’ve said, to myself and others, that sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to live honestly, to care openly, to be present for others and see them as just as important as oneself. I love this idea of fighting not against a system so much as for one another. It is an idea that is clearly the beating heart of “The Sun from Both Sides”. You know, there are so many other things we could talk about, but I think this is a wonderful place to come to a stopping point: with that idea of a revolution always rooted in love. I can get behind that revolution. I can join that wholeheartedly.
I agree that it is no easy thing to live honestly and care openly. But luckily for humans, love is something most of us desire to experience. Unlike warfare, you do not tire of it; it does not exhaust you into seeking to hide from its destructive effects. Instead, it is endless motivation. Fuel that allows a light to burn bright and strong, casting all things into sharp relief and showing the way forward, sometimes long after the initial source of that love is gone.
Thank you for this conversation: you’ve given me a lot to think about, and some ideas for how to live justly and well, and work to build a better world. I’ll be thinking about what we discussed here for a long time.