RN: First of all, Suzanne, thank you for taking the time to do this with me. I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with you for a long time. “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” is a great story to talk about. I also note that – once again – we shared a table of contents, with “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” being collected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection along with my story “Winter Timeshare”. Both those stories originally appeared in appeared in Asimov’s, where I am happy to be given a bit of imposter syndrome every time I find one of my stories alongside one of yours.
As usual, I warn readers that there will be plenty of spoilers: this series is a discussion of whole stories, and I highly recommend they first read the story, then this discussion.
So – let’s jump right in: I loved this story. It has a classic feel to it. I should explain what I mean by that, because it’s one of those phrases people throw off without being specific. I mean the following:
1) It has that feeling of being “core” planetary exploration hard science fiction, which makes it feel like it falls directly in the center of the genre’s traditions.
2) It has a perfect, balanced, very traditional narrative structure, with excellent pacing and some great moments of complication, re-complication, and revelation that drive the plot forward without sacrificing character. I feel like it could be used as an example in a class on pacing.
3) It feels biblical, as it deals with creation and the impact of creation, as well as with “abandonment” by one’s creators.
4) It has a tragic structure that, while leavened by humor, is perfectly executed, and immediately made me think of Greek tragedy.
That’s a lot to talk about, so let’s just start with a few questions. Where do you reach for our inspiration when building a planetary exploration story like “Number Thirty-Nine Skink”? Do you draw energy as a writer from within the genre, or do you find yourself looking outside of science fiction for that inspiration? This story has the feel of being a channeling of influences from so many stories past. I’d like to hear more about where it “came from,” so to speak. What was the seed?
And second: The story really is a master class in pacing and structure, with perfectly timed reveals, and a very strongly executed shuttling of scene between Kadey’s recollections and the current scene. How do you accomplish this? Are you aware of pacing and structure as you move through your first draft? Do you plan the story out beforehand? Or does it emerge during the writing process itself?
SP: Backing up for a moment, and in the interests of full disclosure, I want to confess that I truly love ludicrous analogies, and they're still my best way of expressing truth. So, I'm gonna start off with a whopper, which is that my process is rather like coating a ping pong ball in super-sticky glue and chucking it off a steep hillside. By the time it gets to the bottom, after bouncing off random rocks and trees and taking some unpredictably chaotic path down, it's accumulated lots of little bits of moss, bark, dirt, maybe a hapless bug or two, and I pick up that messy first draft and admire all the unexpected found stuff, decide what to keep and what to carefully pluck free of the glue and put back where it belongs, and then, voila! Story.
All of which is to say that I'm a "pantser" in writing parlance (ie, flying by the seat of) and tend to find the story as I go along. This suits the whims of my ADHD self, but part of it is also that I am a packrat when it comes to bits of information. There's almost nothing out there that I'm not at least a little bit interested in, and when it comes to science and art I'm still, in my fifties, a kid loose in a candy store far vaster than I could ever fully explore.
I have, as it happens, a degree in Fine Arts, specializing in 3D art, and in art we talk a lot about additive versus subtractive processes. In sculpture, those are fairly easy to distinguish: if you're carving a piece out of a hunk of wood or marble, you're working subtractively. If you build things up, you're working additively. Writing, I think, is very rarely strictly one or the other, but both are very much an excellent framework for thinking about story. From that sense, my writing is skewed heavily towards the additive as well.
Getting back to your question, I'd been reading an article about 3D printing of living cells, and the possibility of creating replacement organs and all sorts of medically interesting things, and it wasn't too far to jump from "can we print an ear?" to "can we print a lizard?"
(I really like lizards. And frogs. And most but not all--looking at you, earwigs--bugs.)
From there, the question for me became, who would print a lizard, and why? And of course, what are the ethics of doing so? The genre historically has talked a lot about terraforming in generally glorious, human-centric terms, where making a planet better for humans is portrayed as an uncomplicated good. More recent works have stepped back to more critically address the colonialistic aspects of those narratives, and how we valorize by analogy a lot of really destructive, often genocidal, real histories.
All of which makes it sound like I went into this story with deep motives, though it started off with just that lizard, being printed and brought to life, and then everything fell into place from there far more through serendipity and digging through the junk drawer of idea snippets than any kind of planning.
RN: I really love that ping-pong ball analogy. And I am always fascinated by the metaphors that other writers use to describe their processes. There is so much overlap I the way we, as writers, work – and also so much difference between us. I feel like I don’t have good insight into how my process works, as so much of it operates below the surface, but I would say it’s something like this: first I have to let the idea sort of gestate in the back of my brain. This involves just thinking about it, in a very passive way, sometimes for months, and letting other ideas, experiences, or concepts I may be considering at the time adhere to it and change its form, until I feel like it is in some sort of shape to start. Then I take it out and roll it down the hill.
So I seem to need some kind of contemplative time, when one idea becomes two or three, then all of them become one new, more complex idea, and only then do I want the rush of tossing that fledgling amalgam down the hill of actual writing, and seeing what adheres. I’ve garbled your own analogy even further, and I apologize to our readers for that, but what I am getting at is that there is a “pre-process” for me that is about gathering in lots of influence and things I am curious about, which I think is akin to what you are talking about, in that like you, I am a packrat when it comes to information. What I love about writing is it gives me a chance to actually do something with all that stuff, rather than just annoying people with it over dinner. Writing, for me, is a way of organizing my own experience in the world.
SP: Oh, yes! Very much so with the accretion. I've also likened story formation to dust accreting in space and when there's enough of it, when it hits a certain magical density, it can make a star. I don't always know what little bit will push an idea over into something workable, but when it happens, you absolutely feel it.
I tend to have a bunch of things in the works at once, at various stages, so I can sort of ignore a lot of the background processing stuff and let it get on with itself in the back of my mind and just check in periodically to see if it's ready for direct attention yet. Eventually something comes to a boil.
RN: I very much picked up on the anti-colonial aspect of the narrative. It was interesting to watch Kadey struggle with the implications of terraforming – from trying to make sure that new creations occupied a proper niche, then to making snap judgements about who should be allowed to survive, and finally to an acceptance of a far less interventionist role in the planet’s environment. Do you think this has parallels with your own ideas about human interventions in nature? Is there something you would want your reader to take away regarding our place on our own planet?
SP: I grew up in a middle-class, very white New England suburb with assorted deeply naive and frankly biased, unchallenged notions that did not survive leaving home and encountering the actual world in college and beyond (and whoooboy am I grateful for that, as cringe-worthy and rough as some of those rude awakenings were.) I suppose we all launch into the world with a certain set of information that, if we can't grow beyond it, revise and expand our understanding of other people (and ourselves), and re-evaluate our own give and take with the world, we are inevitably and needlessly destructive even if (or especially when) we can't see it. And I guess the larger lesson is that we always will be to some extent, but we also can work toward being better, toward trying to contribute more light than darkness to the world as we can, and that's the noble work of a lifetime.
Likewise, I think humanity, in fits and starts, and on the verge of catastrophic disaster, is starting to revise its own give and take with both the natural world, and with each other. It's imperfect, and unbalanced, and maybe we won't make it, but the number of people who understand the importance of coexisting less destructively with the natural world keeps increasing. And, hopefully, coexisting peacefully with each other. I sit here on land once belonging to the Nipmuc and Pocumtuc people, and the next town over is named after the guy who wiped a lot of them out by deliberately giving them blankets taken from people who had just died of smallpox. Our ideas about who deserves to survive have never been very generous.
It's one thing to look back and see the harm already done, another to see the harm being done right now. In a lot of ways Kadey embodies that moment of awful clarity.
RN: I love this line: “He apologized to me in those last semi-lucid days . . . as if I was more than just some machine crawling across an alien world knitting data into flesh. I wonder if, at the end, he had lost sight of my nature. Or have I? I have no one to ask.”
To me, there is an echo here (and excuse me for getting Biblical, but it is what immediately leapt to mind) of the opening line of the Gospel of John, and specifically to the concept of the “logos” or “word” of John 1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Which seems a bit too deep, but I’m going to bring it in here, because with Kadey and her “gourmet skink cookies” we have a much less certain creator, a much more contingent creator. And in the same way, we have the “logos” (really mistranslated as “word,” it should probably be “discourse” or “reason”) in the Bible, but in “Number Thirty-Nine Skink” it is reduced to the more prosaic sounding “data.” But the very idea of “knitting data into flesh” here is an act of creation akin to, but in a reduced form, the creations of Genesis. Kadey is a kind of minor god, “improving” upon the ecosphere that exists on the planet, engaging in sophisticated acts of creation that slot new lifeforms into niches. But as we discover later, Kadey is also an abandoned creation, intended to be destroyed but saved. And then we discover that Kadey has, in fact, re-created her savior – brought them back from the dead.
I think our culture is saturated with these repetitions of the creation myth, and perhaps nowhere more so than in science fiction. Can you talk a bit about Kadey’s position, both as creator and abandoned creation?
SP: I think it's very, very hard to get away from creation myths, for the reasons that you state--they permeate so much of our fiction and philosophies, both overtly and in more subtle, subliminal ways. And I think that we need these frameworks--culturally, and individually--as a way of delegating big picture thoughts so that we can go about our daily lives and routines without constantly tripping over our need for meaning and purpose. It's good because it also gives us a way of sharing ideas and values with each other, but it can also be a trap, if we start feeling like meaning and purpose have no immediate relevance to what we do.
So, okay, backing up because I think I got lost in the weeds there a bit. I am very fortunate that my day job is both something I'm good at, that I really enjoy doing, and something that serves an obvious higher purpose--science, and the promotion of women into STEM fields. I once interviewed at a company whose entire business model was basically fax spam. (This was obviously quite a long time ago.) I'm not sure the technical nitty gritty of what I do would have been much different, but from a personal moral perspective, the difference is enormous.
What Kadey does, what she is built for, is basic nitty gritty stuff. Analyze, adapt from a template, deploy, move on and start over. We do not build machinery with any notion of the bigger picture, of moral context, because it would serve no function. A sewing machine doesn't need to care if it's sewing wedding gowns or body bags. But, as our machinery becomes more sophisticated and more autonomous, is that still true? Theoretically there is human oversight, but humans are fallible at best, and there is a long history of us handing off such considerations upward--from the individual to the company, to the government, to the church--to people we hope have the better view to make moral decisions, or at least be there for us to point responsibility and blame at when everything goes wrong. We already are seeing how implicit biases unintentionally are replicated in our increasingly sophisticated technology, like the way facial recognition technology struggles with non-white faces. (The morality of that particular technology itself is a whole other discussion.)
Going back to analogies, we can kind of break things down as machine vs. operation vs. oversight. Our bodies are physical machines who carry out their biological functions along a set of parameters, while we as thinking individuals are operators of our bodies, but constrained by social and cultural and legal parameters imposed on us. I don't think we think too much about how we delegate back and forth between those components, because ultimately it's all the integrated experience of life. But good fiction picks these things apart.
The morality of subverting/supplanting the native ecosystem on an alien world is fully outside the scope of Kadey, but when she loses the last of her operators, she is aware enough of the limits and the context of her role to try to recreate that bridge between function and operator/oversight. In doing so, she unwittingly merges those roles--and the grief, loss, and conflict they inherently bring--into her own self. And ironically, she is in that position because her operator, Mike, made a choice based on sentimentality instead of dispassionate ethics, so it's the reunion of the two of them, who have essentially recreated each other, that also brings them back around to a place where they can understand the implications of what they have been doing.
That feels like a very long and possibly overly bloviated answer, and would erroneously suggest that these are the things I'm deliberately aiming for when I started the story, when mostly I do it by feel and instinct as I go.
RN: On the contrary, I think it is a very full answer, and succinct for the amount of material you cover. Besides, one of the purposes of Better Dreaming is to get away, as much as possible, from the soundbite answer and dig deeper. So, let’s dig!
It seems to me as if we have been transitioning for a very long time (several decades at least) from a culture that accepts universals, such as universal concepts of right and wrong, and that seeks to isolate the individual from its environment and contemplate them as a kind of “universal subject” to a culture that is increasingly aware of the connectedness of individuals in a web of culture, meaning, and power. I think we are also increasingly aware of the constraints placed upon the individual by their particular location in that web of meaning.
This story explores this issue quite powerfully: released from a functional role and elevated to a role in which she must decide not only on the efficacy of her actions but their moral integrity, she finds herself thrown into great doubt about what she is doing. As you point out above, there is now no-one for her to “point responsibility and blame at when everything goes wrong.” She is on her own, with a much greater degree of free choice. And that choice is liberating – she gains much more control over her interventions and makes creative decisions – but the lack of constraint from above on her possible choices is also a great burden. And it seems to me as if the burden of making those choices is what allows her to extend her intelligence, as well. She, in a sense, becomes truly conscious only when fully in control of her own decision making – when growing into the role of creator.
SP: That is the great irony, really, that the more aware we become of ourselves as individuals, the more aware we also become of the responsibilities that carries. Control comes with culpability.
I think that's the attraction of situations where you can cede control and thus blame to some other entity, be it a church, the state, a boss, etc.--the chance to absolve yourself of responsibility for your own choices, by giving others the power to make those choices for you. Self-determination can be brutal sometimes.
RN: I appreciate the reminder, at the end of your response above, that when you started the story you didn’t necessarily have any of this in mind, and that you worked by feel and instinct. I really think that’s the magic, though, of fiction. It’s not a tract, or a screed: One of the great things about fiction for me is that – and I have said this elsewhere -- writing is the building of complex rhetorical machines that change the way we see the world. A good piece of literature should alter the way we see our own world slightly, but forever. As writers, we build those machines bit by bit, through the process of writing itself. That’s the only way it can be done.
But to extend that thought, I don’t think writing, if it is good, works through reductive didacticism – it does it, instead, by creating a theater in which complex concepts play themselves out – not to resolution, but through increasing levels of complexity that engage the mind of the reader while leaving things at least partially unresolved. Good writing reveals complexity. It leaves the reader enriched, but not certain. It leaves them thinking. I really think this story does that – at least, it did that for me.
SP: There's a huge element of play for me in everything I write, both in the actual process of writing it, and in my overall sense of what I want the story to do when I'm done. Some things have to be resolved, but if a story is too tidy, too wrapped-up, it feels like a dead end when you're done with it, and I don't want to leave readers in that place. We should carry stuff with us out of a story experience, little bits that cling to our imagination, or even just a mood, like a satisfying walk in the woods where, when we return home, we find we've stuffed our pockets with interesting pebbles. I don't aspire towards writing a piece with a grand eureka moment, because that's such a personal thing for the reader and so easy to utterly miss with, but lots of little ahas and ooh neats that are easy to pocket for later contemplation.
RN: Can we talk a bit about influence? Who do you read? And I’m not specifically asking for people in the genre – I’m interested in your reading habits as a whole. Where do you find yourself pulling new ideas from? Who do you go to for craft? For pure wonder?
SP: The pandemic has really shifted my reading habits, at least insomuch as I'm finding the energy to read (or write) much at all. Prior to COVID, I tended to be reading things unlike whatever I was writing, so when working on space opera stuff I'd read a lot of hard SF or fantasy, and vice versa. Ideas and worldbuilding stuff can be sticky, and it's easier to step out of what I'm reading into my own stuff if there isn't much commonality between them. This was obviously made more complicated whenever I'm working on multiple pieces at once (which I usually am) across different genres, which sometimes means I'm also reading several books or stories at once that are likewise different. I also tend to read a lot of scientific stuff, mostly fairly general-audiences articles unless something grabs me, then I dive deeper into it.
One thing I've never had much of any tolerance for is stuff that is unremittingly grim. Maybe it's a function of having experienced a lot of tragedy in my own life, but I don't need misery as a reader, and I don't want to inflict misery on anyone else as a writer. I mean, dark stories? Sure. Tragic endings? Sure. But there has to be some glimmer, at the end, of hope, or of a triumph of principle or honor. Something of value that makes that journey worthwhile.
Since the pandemic I've found it difficult to maintain focus to the extent that I used to, and that's deeply upsetting if also not something unique to me. Sure, some of that is just the added weight of being solo parent to three kids who were suddenly home again all day long, and trying to manage aging parents from 2600 miles away, but it's also being alive at a time and in a place where it's suddenly very clear that an astounding number of people just don't care if others live or die, and the awful degradation of optimism that comes with that. And I don't know that I can function very long without optimism to sustain me. Anyhow, as a result of all that [waves arms wildly at ALL THAT, all around us] I've been reading lighter things, more shorter fiction, and just trying to muddle through until there isn't a constant layer of alarm and anxiety over everything. Because that is also something I don't want to seep into what I write, to pass on that vibe of existential crisis to my readers-- each of us has more than enough of that already all on our own. There has to be that spark of light.
RN: I completely agree, and that seems like a great place to end this conversation for now – on that idea that there had to be that spark of light. I’ve said elsewhere that, while I appreciate utopias and dystopias at times, what really interests me are heterotopias. I don’t feel like we will ever find our way out of all dilemmas, but we can work our way through the worst of them, and shove the world gradually into a better position, while we explore how to do better with the new problems that emerge.
I’ll end by saying this: I found this to be an uplifting story, and an uplifting conversation as well, and I think these kinds of exchanges help me feel better about all of the awfulness around us – they remind me that there are also people out there striving to make the world a better place. I consider you one of those people, and I’m glad to have had this opportunity to dig a little deeper into your work. I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation over the years.
SP: Thank you very much! It's been a great discussion, and it's interesting how many sort of spin-off thoughts I've had from your questions and thinking through my answers here--often about things I'd never tried to frame or articulate--that are now seeping into a couple of my current projects. I mean, that's really what it's about, right? Try. Evaluate. Raise the bar. Try again. And ultimately every story we write is not just a conversation between us and our readers, but also between us and other works we've read. For all that writing seems on the surface very solitary and discrete in nature, there are deep roots between all of us, and a big, messy, tangled, gloriously unpredictable conversation happening on multiple levels and fronts across the speculative fiction genre, and it's definitely been a pleasure to set down one little piece of that in a more tangible way it with you. And I look forward to bumping into you in more tables of contents.