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Cory Doctorow: Skynet Ascendant

As I’ve written here before, science fiction is terrible at predicting the future, but it’s great at predicting the present. SF writers imagine all the futures they can, and these futures are processed by a huge, dynamic system consisting of editors, booksellers, and readers. The futures that attain popular and commercial success tell us what fears and aspirations for technology and society are bubbling in our collective imaginations.

When you read an era’s popular SF, you don’t learn much about the future, but you sure learn a lot about the past. Fright and hope are the inner and outer boundaries of our imagination, and the stories that appeal to either are the parameters of an era’s political reality.

Pay close attention to the impossibilities. When we find ourselves fascinated by faster than light travel, consciousness uploading, or the silly business from The Matrix of AIs using human beings as batteries, there’s something there that’s chiming with our lived experience of technology and social change.

Postwar SF featured mass-scale, state-level projects, a kind of science fictional New Deal. Americans and their imperial rivals built cities in space, hung skyhooks in orbit, even made Dyson Spheres that treated all the Solar System’s matter as the raw material for the a new, human-optimized megaplanet/space-station that would harvest every photon put out by our sun and put it to work for the human race.

Meanwhile, the people buying these books were living in an era of rapid economic growth, and even more importantly, the fruits of that economic growth were distributed to the middle class as well as to society’s richest. This was thanks to nearly unprecedented policies that protected tenants at the expense of landlords, workers at the expense of employers, and buy­ers at the expense of sellers. How those policies came to be enacted is a question of great interest today, even as most of them have been sunsetted by successive governments across the developed world.

Thomas Piketty’s data-driven economics bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that the vast capital destruction of the two World Wars (and the chaos of the interwar years) weakened the grip of the wealthy on the governments of the world’s developed states. The arguments in favor of workplace safety laws, taxes on capital gains, and other policies that undermined the wealthy and benefited the middle class were not new. What was new was the political possibility of these ideas.

As developed nations’ middle classes grew, so did their material wealth, political influence, and expectations that governments would build am­bitious projects like interstate highways and massive civil engineering projects. These were politically popular – because lawmakers could use them to secure pork for their voters – and also lucrative for government contractors, making ‘‘Big Government’’ a rare point of agreement between the rich and middle-income earners.

(A note on poor people: Piketty’s data suggests that the share of the national wealth controlled by the bottom 50% has not changed much for several centuries – eras of prosperity are mostly about redistributing from the top 10-20% to the next 30-40%)

Piketty hypothesizes that the returns on investment are usually greater than the rate of growth in an economy. The best way to get rich is to start with a bunch of money that you turn over to professional managers to invest for you – all things being equal, this will make you richer than you could get by inventing something everyone uses and loves. For example, Piketty contrasts Bill Gates’s fortunes as the founder of Microsoft, once the most profitable company in the world, with Gates’s fortunes as an investor after his retirement from the business. Gates-the-founder made a lot less by creating one of the most successful and profitable products in history than he did when he gave up making stuff and started owning stuff for a living.

By the early 1980s, the share of wealth controlled by the top decile tipped over to the point where they could make their political will felt again – again, Piketty supports this with data showing that nations elect seriously investor-friendly/worker-unfriendly governments when investors gain control over a critical percentage of the national wealth. Leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, and Mulroney enacted legislative reforms that reversed the post-war trend, dis­mantling the rules that had given skilled workers an edge over their employers – and the investors the employers served.

The greed-is-good era was also the cyberpunk era of literary globalized corporate dystopias. Even though Neuromancer and Mirrorshades predated the anti-WTO protests by a decade and a half, they painted similar pictures. Educated, skilled people – people who comprised the mass of SF buyers – became a semi-disposable under­class in world where the hyperrich had literally ascended to the heavens, living in orbital luxury hotels and harvesting wealth from the bulk of humanity like whales straining krill.

Seen in this light, the vicious literary feuds between the cyberpunks and the old guard of space-colonizing stellar engineer writers can be seen as a struggle over our political imagination. If we crank the state’s dials all the way over the right, favoring the industrialist ‘‘job creators’’ to the exclusion of others, will we find our way to the stars by way of trickle-down, or will the overclass graft their way into a decadent New Old Rome, where reality TV and hedge fund raids consume the attention and work we once devoted to exploring our solar system?

Today, wealth disparity consumes the popular imagination and political debates. The front-running science fictional impossibility of the unequal age is rampant artificial intelligence. There were a lot of SF movies produced in the mid-eighties, but few retain the currency of the Termina­tor and its humanity-annihilating AI, Skynet. Everyone seems to thrum when that chord is plucked – even the NSA named one of its illegal mass surveillance programs SKYNET.

It’s been nearly 15 years since the Matrix movies debuted, but the Red Pill/Blue Pill business still gets a lot of play, and young adults who were small children when Neo fought the AIs know exactly what we mean when we talk about the Matrix.

Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and other luminaries have issued pan­icked warnings about the coming age of humanity-hating computerized overlords. We dote on the party tricks of modern AIs, sending half-admiring/half-dreading laurels to the Watson team when it manages to win at Jeopardy or randomwalk its way into a new recipe.

The fear of AIs is way out of proportion to their performance. The Big Data-trawling systems that are supposed to find terrorists or figure out what ads to show you have been a consistent flop. Facebook’s new growth model is sending a lot of Web traffic to businesses whose Facebook followers are increasing, waiting for them to shift their major commercial strategies over to Facebook marketing, then turning off the traffic and demanding recur­ring payments to send it back – a far cry from using all the facts of your life to figure out that you’re about to buy a car before even you know it.

Google’s self-driving cars can only operate on roads that humans have mapped by hand, manually marking every piece of street-furniture. The NSA can’t point to a single terrorist plot that mass-surveillance has disrupted. Ad personalization sucks so hard you can hear it from orbit.

We don’t need artificial intelligences that think like us, after all. We have a lot of human cognition lying around, going spare – so much that we have to create listicles and other cognitive busy-work to absorb it. An AI that thinks like a human is a redundant vanity project – a thinking version of the ornithopter, a useless mechanical novelty that flies like a bird.

We need machines that don’t fly like birds. We need AI that thinks unlike humans. For example, we need AIs that can be vigilant for bomb-parts on airport X-rays. Humans literally can’t do this. If you spend all day looking for bomb-parts but finding water bottles, your brain will rewire your neurons to look for water bottles. You can’t get good at something you never do.

What does the fear of futuristic AI tell us about the parameters of our present-day fears and hopes?

I think it’s corporations.

We haven’t made Skynet, but we have made these autonomous, transhuman, transnational technolo­gies whose bodies are distributed throughout our physical and economic reality. The Internet of Things version of the razorblade business model (sell cheap handles, use them to lock people into buying expensive blades) means that the products we buy treat us as adversaries, checking to see if we’re breaking the business logic of their makers and self-destructing if they sense tampering.

Corporations run on a form of code – financial regulation and accounting practices – and the modern version of this code literally prohibits corporations from treating human beings with empathy. The principle of fiduciary duty to inves­tors means that where there is a chance to make an investor richer while making a worker or customer miserable, management is obliged to side with the investor, so long as the misery doesn’t backfire so much that it harms the investor’s quarterly return.

We humans are the inconvenient gut-flora of the corporation. They aren’t hostile to us. They aren’t sympathetic to us. Just as every human carries a hundred times more non-human cells in her gut than she has in the rest of her body, every corpora­tion is made up of many separate living creatures that it relies upon for its survival, but which are fundamentally interchangeable and disposable for its purposes. Just as you view stray gut-flora that attacks you as a pathogen and fight it off with anti­biotics, corporations attack their human adversaries with an impersonal viciousness that is all the more terrifying for its lack of any emotional heat.

The age of automation gave us stories like Chap­lain’s Modern Times, and the age of multinational hedge-fund capitalism made The Matrix into an enduring parable. We’ve gone from being cogs to being a reproductive agar within which new cor­porations can breed. As Mitt Romney reminded us, ‘‘Corporations are people.’’


James Morrow: Absolute Uncertainty

James Kenneth Morrow was born March 17, 1947, in Philadelphia PA and received a BA in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. He earned an MAT from Harvard in 1970, taught English at the Cambridge Pilot School from 1970-71, worked as an instructional materials specialist for the Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts from 1972-74, taught media production at Tufts University from 1977-79, and contributed articles to A Teacher’s Guide to NOVA from 1979-85. He has been mostly a freelance writer for nearly 40 years. He has two children from his first marriage (to Jean Pierce) and lives in State College PA with second wife Kathryn Smith Morrow and son Christopher.

Morrow is one of our leading satirists. His first novel, The Wine of Violence, appeared in 1981, followed by The Continent of Lies (1985); Nebula Award finalist and Campbell Memorial Award runner-up This Is the Way the World Ends (1986); and World Fantasy Award Winner Only Begotten Daughter (1990), also a Campbell Memorial and Nebula Award finalist. His Godhead trilogy includes the World Fantasy and Grand Prix l’Imaginaire winner Towing Jehovah (1994), also a Hugo, Clarke, and Nebula Award finalist; New York Times notable book Blameless in Abaddon (1996); and Grand Prix l’Imaginaire finalist The Eternal Footman (1999). Postmodern historical epic The Last Witchfinder appeared in 2006, and Frankenstein homage, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, in 2008. His latest novel is Galápagos Regained (2015).

Morrow is equally adept at short fiction. Notable stories include Nebula Award winners ‘‘Bible Stories for Adults #17: The Deluge’’ (1989) and novella City of Truth (1990), and Nebula Award nominee ‘‘Auspicious Eggs’’ (2000). Novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima (2009) won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and was a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist. Novella The Madonna and the Starship appeared in 2014. His stories have been collected in Author’s Choice Monthly Issue 8 (1990), World Fantasy Award nominee Bible Stories for Adults (1996), and The Cat’s Pajamas & Other Stories (2004). Collection Reality By Other Means is forthcoming.

Morrow edited the Nebula Awards anthologies numbers 26, 27, and 28 (1993-1994), and co-edited The SFWA European Hall of Fame (2008, with Kathryn Morrow). He won a Prix Utopia Award for life achievement at the Utopiales Festival in Nantes, France, in 2005.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I’m a difficult writer to categorize. If it said ‘science fiction author’ on my tombstone, I’d be happy in my state of oblivion. If it said ‘satirist’ on my tombstone, I’d be equally satisfied. I think the river of my imagination is fed by all the tributaries of the satiric tradition, but I appreciate the particular ways the science fiction toolkit lets me deconstruct human follies and foi­bles. My literary heroes certainly include SF satirists like Robert Sheckley and William Tenn, but also mainstream satirists. Jonathan Swift is a name I don’t get tired of hearing associated with the oeuvre of James Morrow. Vol­taire, certainly, and Mark Twain, and Joseph Heller. I’ve drawn nourishment from all their work.”

*

‘‘I hope I never lose my edge. If I ever become some kind of benevolent grandfather figure – God strike me down! I always want to make people ner­vous. I insist that people get up every morning and do an uncomfortable amount of thinking. That’s the great gift of the 18th-century Enlightenment, that insistence on a conversation that must never stop, a conversation that must never be shut down by theistic fantasies about the workings of the uni­verse. Absolute certainty is the great malaise of our species, all those clerics and political thinkers who say, ‘Please ignore this pile of bodies over here while I tell you how the world works.’

‘‘When you’re a satirist, nothing is sacred, not even worldviews you happen to agree with. One thing I like about my Towing Jehovah thought experiment, one of the surprising inevitabilities that precipitated out of that broth, was that it gave me an opportunity to mock myself. At the center of the novel is the conceit of the Corpus Dei, the two-mile-long corpse of God that my hero, a su­pertanker captain, must deliver to its final resting place in the Arctic. As the plot unfolds, the body becomes a sort of three-dimensional Rorschach test, a big floating inkblot. That novel is a bit like the Hindu fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant: everyone comes away with a different interpreta­tion. You touch the elephant’s tusk, and you decide an elephant is like a spear. The leg of the elephant leads one blind man to believe an elephant is es­sentially a tree, and the tail means elephants are ropes, and the trunk means elephants are snakes.

‘‘In Towing Jehovah, one of those limited viewpoints becomes that of atheists, even though I’m an atheist myself. When you think about it, if you stumble upon the corpse of God, that means that he or she or it was once alive, and that invali­dates the atheist argument. I had fun making up the Central Park West Enlightenment League, and being rather severe with them for wanting to blow the Corpus Dei out of the water. It’s a very human reaction, but pretty hypocritical. One of the more clear-thinking Enlightenment League members ac­cuses her fellow skeptics of what she calls ‘atheist fundamentalism’ – so long before the New Atheist movement, I anticipated the problem of doctrinaire secularism.

‘‘It’s funny, though. Now that the notion of ‘atheist fundamentalism’ has become so common – I think of the pleasure public intellectuals like Chris Hedges and Terry Eagleton take in sneering at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris – now that ‘atheist fundamentalism’ is such a popular term, I find myself pushing back against it. It seems to me that most of Dawkins’s detractors are sort of like the courtiers in the Hans Christian Andersen fable, who can’t bring themselves to admit the emperor is naked. I can imagine a sequel in which, after the little boy blurts out the truth during the parade, the courtiers start attacking him: ‘You know, that little boy is awfully ugly.’ ‘I heard his parents never got married.’ ‘That cheeky kid – who is he to talk about nakedness? He has no advanced degree in the ontology of nakedness!’ It seems to me that most critiques of the New Atheists never get beyond that level of discourse.”

*

‘‘Although I’m an atheist, I don’t really write as an atheist. I write as a heretic. I write as a bewil­dered pilgrim, someone who has been thrown into the world, like everybody else, and feels he has an obligation in his perplexity to ask really good questions. There’s a readership for James Morrow novels among the disciples of Christopher Hitch­ens and Richard Dawkins, but it’s not where I live. I live in the world of theological and philosophical discourse. That’s where the action is. I’ll always enjoy sharing a beer with someone who’s obsessed with God’s nonexistence, but I’d also love to drink with a Jesuit priest who’s willing to wrestle with the theistic argument and its manifest limitations. That is not to say I’m becoming sympathetic to re­ligion. Whenever I hear the word ‘spiritual’ in a sentence, I know that nothing good or interesting is about to follow. And yet, I must admit that if it weren’t for religion, I’d be out of a job.”

*

‘‘Galápagos Regained came about because I’d had some commercial success with The Last Witchfinder, my attempt to dramatize the birth of the scientific worldview. I thought a follow-up historical epic would be a good idea, but I couldn’t think of a premise. My wife, Kathy, had to live with my distress, and one day she turned to me and said, ‘Jim, ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been bending my ear about Charles Darwin. The solution has been staring us in the face.’ My enthu­siasm for Darwin goes back to my reading of Rob­ert Ardrey’s African Genesis in college. Nobody reads that book today, and its killer-ape theory now seems overwrought and maybe misogynist – but I responded to Ardrey’s rhapsodizing about our in­timate connection to the animal world. Many kids of my generation weren’t formally taught about Darwin in school. In one of his essays Stephen Jay Gould makes the point that William Jennings Bryan and his fellow fundamentalists weren’t the big losers in the Scopes trial. In the decades that followed, there was a resurgence of Evangelical­ism, and a rise in textbook censorship. When I took biology in ninth grade, not a word was said about the theory of evolution, the Tree of Life, or the in­sights of Darwin. It was all about taxonomy.”

*

‘‘Next up for me – you’ll never guess – is an­other theological epic. The working title is Lazarus Is Waiting. Years ago I remember saying to Kathy, who’s my muse, ‘I think the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity is ripe for James Morrow’s satiric scalpel.’ Kathy said, ‘No! No! Good God, you’re going to disappear into the valley of research, and I’ll never see you again.’ But I believe I’ve figured out how to avoid drag­ging in a lot of actual history. The novel is going to be deliberately cartoonish, a tale told by a half-mad Lazarus who travels about on a time-traveling Egyptian ship of possibly extraterrestrial origin, so I won’t have to render every moment with com­plete verisimilitude.”


Kameron Hurley:

Money, Fame, Notoriety: What Are We Self-Publishing For?

Like a lot of new writers, I got through years and years of rejection slips by believing I was simply misunderstood.

I suppose you could chalk a lot of this up to being young. But I also knew very little about writing, or publishing, or how to tell a good story. That trifecta of ignorance led me to invest in a lot of publishing conspiracy theories, so it amuses me these days to see so many new writers engaged in the same conversations about publishing cabals. Good books get re­jected all the time, yes. Bad books can make lots of money, yes. It helps if you know people in publishing if you want to get published, yes.

The old-fashioned grind where you continually lev­el up your skills as a writer and bust through the pearly gates after decades of hard work? Yes, that works too. And it works more often.

Like many writers who came up in the business be­fore self-publishing was virtually free, I’m relieved I didn’t have access to modern-day self-publishing tools. The ease with which one can publish freely on­line today is both a blessing and a curse. It’s fabulous that authors have so many options now. Did your pub­lisher not pick up the third book in your trilogy? Self-publish it. Is your new experimental book not finding a home after that bestselling fantasy series finished its run with numbers that were sort of ‘‘meh’’? Self-publish it! Do you have short story collections with award-winning stuff that no one will buy be­cause ‘‘there’s no money in short fiction’’? Now you have options.

Yet the vast majority of folks self-publishing today aren’t professional authors with quality work to sell, and they aren’t misunderstood geniuses. Most of those who choose self-publishing right out of the gate don’t have hundreds of rejection slips in a folder somewhere. Many are like me at 18 or 19, people with a few years of writing stories under their belts, who are really frustrated that no one will buy their work, or who simply don’t have the time or inclination to figure out where to start with getting published at smaller and then bigger houses, or who feel publishing is just one vast conspiracy where people only publish writers they know (it does make it easier). Publishing is a messy business. I get that it’s easier to put some­thing online and pray that the money rolls in than it is to slog through the underbelly of publishing slush piles for decades.

But here’s your spoiler for the year: the money probably isn’t going to roll in, no matter how you publish. The odds are stacked against you either way. In truth, unless you already have a built-in audience from your blog, your traditionally published work, your Youtube channel, or your Instagram account, you probably aren’t even going to make back what you spent to make your cover art for that self-published collection.

I say that as someone who has work that’s both traditionally published and self-published (the latter primarily short stories and story collections). I can pay a utility bill every month with what I make for the self-pub stuff, and that’s swell, but I’m not rich, and I’m not famous.

Which is OK. Because I didn’t start writing to be rich or famous. I started writing because I wanted to be a really great writer.

This is what worries me when I see so many young writers in particular run off to publish work themselves. Writing a novel isn’t a get-rich quick scheme, and self-publishing a novel isn’t a golden ticket to becoming a better writer. Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish a book, if you’re waiting for some kind of external validation for your work, you aren’t going to get it from publishing.

You need to set your own bar for success, and measure your work by that. To do anything else will lead to a lot of frustration. My bar for suc­cess is to become a master writer.

That’s a high bar. It may not be your bar, but it’s mine. Self-publishing early in my career wasn’t going to help me achieve that.

A couple years back, I read the early chapters of a book from a young writer who’d self-published their work. It wasn’t horrible. The book re­minded me of something a young, unfocused Myke Cole might write. I could see how the writer could level up after a couple more books, and with the help of a writing peer group and editor to give their work some polish. But they hadn’t chosen to workshop it, or even write another book after they put it up online. When I asked about how the next book was going, I heard mostly about how expensive it had been to self-publish the first (they’d done a print version as well) and how they were holding off on writing the second until they had more money.

Let’s take a step back and think about that for a minute.

Here was this talented kid who wasn’t going to do the work to get any better because they were so fo­cused on the publishing part that they forgot they were in this to be a writer.

And writers write.

I’m not a fan of the rejection grind either, but one thing the rejection grind motivated me to do was to become a better writer. It forced me to focus on craft and look for writing workshops and peer groups, to study other writers’ work, to keep writing new stories, and trying different methods to see what worked. As I leveled up, I started to get more story acceptances.

I wrote eight books and tried to sell two before I finally landed a sale for the third try (and ninth com­pleted book!), and even that ninth attempt, my first published novel, is a hot mess. Yet I learned a lot writing that hot mess (and the hotter messes before it) and working with my agent and editor on it, and the two books that followed were better books. The ones I’m working on now are better still.

I’m doing what I need to do to achieve my goal, and that’s why I’m very satisfied with where I am in my career right now. I’m not waiting for validation from sales, or awards, or fans, or peers.

That keeps me out of trouble.

Leveling up is something I’ve been consciously aware of throughout the last two decades of my active writing career. I know that sitting around writing the same book means I’ll never level up my craft. I’ll never broad­en my audience. What all that grind taught me on the way here was… well, how to grind at the pro level.

The grind never ends. That’s one of things I worry the straight-to-self-publishing school is teaching people – that just writing ‘‘the end’’ is al­ways going to be enough. That simply finishing a work – though certainly a good first step – is the same as being a great storyteller. We’re in this to be fabulous storytellers, aren’t we? Maybe that’s just me.

The rush folks are taking to publication, in many cases, tells me many see a book as a lottery ticket, or a ticket to fame or respectability. Many are looking for validation for their work and seeing sales and getting reader reviews are what motivates them.

I’m in this to be an exceptional writer. I’m in this to level up. I’m in this to be a master of my craft. That’s something I wasn’t going to achieve if I just wrote a story, posted it online, and asked people to pay me for it before I knew what I was doing.

If you’re frustrated with your rejection slips and heading down the road to immediate self-publishing, I’d ask yourself a few questions first.

What are you writing for? The money? The fame? Are you hoping that publishing a book online will give you some sense of validation for what you’re doing? Or are you in this because you want to become an excep­tional writer and a fabulous storyteller?

It’s fine to want all those things, or none of them. The truth is that be­coming an exceptional writer and storyteller does improve your chances of money and fame, but those chances are still very slim. I suggest finding another motivation. I’m here to learn to become a better writer, and the biggest leveling up I’ve done is when I’ve been forced to work with edi­tors on novels and short stories at the professional level.

What are you writing for?


Stephanie Feldman: Folklore & Imagination

Stephanie Beth Feldman was born February 14, 1983 and grew up in Philadelphia. She studied English literature at Barnard College in New York and lived in the city for a decade. Her debut novel, literary fantasy The Angel of Losses (2014), won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy. She teaches fiction writing at Arcadia University, and lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I always wanted to be a writer. When I came of age I realized how daunting it is to write and to publish, and what a tough path it is. For a while I thought maybe I needed to find something else, but in the end there was nothing else. I did have a day job for a long time, of course, but writing was always my focus.

‘‘In college, I studied English literature. I intended to study the canon. I felt like I needed that classical knowledge base. I found myself focus­ing on the British Gothic, 18th-century books. That’s what I wrote my undergraduate thesis on. Those books are pretty fantastic, in different senses of the word. The Monk by Matthew Lewis was an important book for me, and factors in my novel, too. My narrator is researching and writing on those same books. I thought for a while I would go on to graduate school and get my PhD. I decided not to do that, but that’s what my narrator is doing. She’s taking that path for me.

‘‘This is how I usually describe The Angel of Losses: It’s about two sisters. It’s narrated by Marjorie, the older sister, a scholar of Gothic literature. She’s a workaholic living on her own in the city, and she’s es­tranged from her younger sister Holly. The two were very close growing up, but then Holly decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, get married young, and have a baby. She’s pregnant at the beginning of the book, and she’s living according to a lifestyle that Marjorie doesn’t understand and doesn’t like. Marjorie doesn’t like Holly’s husband, Nathan, who’s a member of an obscure mystical sect, either. He and Marjorie have al­ways butted heads.

*

‘‘I love the genre community. I’m very happy to be here. I wrote the book without thinking much about contemporary genre. I was only thinking about the British Gothic, and what I wanted to bor­row from that tradition, and what I wanted to subvert. Then again, that’s two or three hundred years old. It’s not like you have a com­munity of contemporary British Gothic readers, so I was thinking about genre in a particular aesthetic sense. We sold the novel as a literary book, but I always thought it would appeal to a whole variety of readers. I have to admit I’m not super well read and educated in the history of science fiction, but my husband is, so we have every Hugo and Nebula Award winner on the shelf, because at one point he went back and read every single one.

‘‘I’m excited readers have embraced the fantasy elements. When I talk to readers or see reviews from people who approach it from more of a literary point of view, they don’t always get or like the fantasy. I’ve always read genre-bending books, so that’s been my point of view as a reader and a writer all along. I feel at home with other readers and writers who are flexible about what they let in. As soon as I started talking to the publisher about how we were going to present this book, we used the term ‘crossover.’ It’s a crossover book. I was also thinking about Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which is a great book that has a lot in common with this one. We were talking about how to sell this book, and I said, ‘Do it however you sold that one.’

‘‘I’ve had people praise me for my research. They say, ‘I’ve never heard of The White Rebbe before.’ I’ll say, ‘That’s because I made him up, but thank you.’ People think I must be a great scholar because I found things they didn’t know about. I tried to explain in the acknowledgements where the line is between what I made up and what I took from history. I wanted it to be acces­sible to readers even if they didn’t have a Jewish background. I’m Jewish, but I don’t have the same background as the characters in this book. The stories come from folklore and my imagination. I thought whatever I put in the book should be enough information to understand what’s happening and what the story is. I’ve had readers say, ‘I didn’t know anything about this because I’m not Jewish.’ First of all, that’s okay, and second of all, it’s not all real anyway.

‘‘I didn’t even think of it as a Jewish book until my agent said something to that effect. The main character is secular and her sister converts and her brother is very religious, so while their context is Jewish, I thought of it more as a universal thing, how in any family or community you have individuals who follow differ­ent lifestyles, or are more or less mainstream, or just have differ­ent definitions of what it means to be a part of that group. That’s always been fascinating to me. I used Jewish characters to explore that dynamic, but I don’t think it’s just a Jewish issue. As a writer, I was looking for my own immortal sorcerer. I borrowed from Jewish myth to create him, but I could have found him through other sources, too.’’


Nnedi Okorafor: Magical Futurism

Nnedi Okorafor was born April 8, 1974 in Cincinnati OH to Igbo parents who emigrated from Nigeria in 1969. She earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of Illinois in 1996 and an MA in journalism from Michigan State University in 1999. She attended the University of Chicago, getting her MA in English in 2002 and completing her PhD in 2007. She attended the Clarion writing workshop in 2001.

Her first SF story, ‘‘The Palm Tree Bandit’’, appeared in 2001, and story ‘‘Windseekers’’ was included in a Writers of the Future anthology that same year. Since then her stories have appeared in various anthologies, and some of her short work was collected in Kabu Kabu (2013). She also writes critical essays and was a newspaper columnist.

Her debut novel was YA Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), and YA The Shadow Speaker (2007) was also her PhD dissertation. Who Fears Death (2010), her first adult novel, won the World Fantasy Award, and was a Tiptree Award honor book and Nebula Award finalist; a prequel volume, The Book of Phoenix is forthcoming. YA Akata Witch (2011) was an Andre Norton Award finalist, and sequel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is forthcoming. Her latest adult novel is Lagoon (2014). Her play Full Moon was produced in Chicago in 2005.

Okorafor has taught at Chicago State University and Governors State University, and is now an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo. She divides her time between New York and Illinois, where her family (including daughter Anyaugo Okorafor-Mbachu) lives.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Who Fears Death was my first adult novel. My editor Betsy Woll­heim calls it ‘magical futurism.’ I’m happy with that. I started writing Who Fears Death after my father passed. I began right after coming home from my father’s wake-keeping. It was very difficult for me. My family’s very close. My dad suffered a lot. He had Parkinson’s and con­gestive heart failure and diabetes. He was a cardiovascular surgeon, and we’re talking about a disease that makes you shake. The thing that really took him was congestive heart failure. He repaired hearts for a living, and that’s what took him. I was very angry and there was a lot flying around in my head. He was eventually buried in Nigeria but they had his wake here in the states.

‘‘His wake-keeping was very painful. I cried the whole time. Near the end of it, I was in the room with him. Everyone was saying goodbye and I looked at him and thought it didn’t look like him anymore. I felt some­thing coming into me that was very powerful and strong, and it felt like it would destroy the whole room. At some point my mom and sister took me out of there. I went home and I wrote the first scene. Who Fears Death was one of the most difficult novels to write for many reasons. I started it to deal with the loss of my father. For me a lot of writing is therapeutic. I can let things out – all those things happening around me that I can’t deal with. I didn’t know I was writing a novel. I did not know what the story was about – I didn’t know any of it. I sat down and wrote the scene I’d dealt with at my father’s wake-keeping, and then I just kept writing. Soon I started hearing the voice of the character and I knew where she was com­ing from. That book took me about six years to write. The first draft was over 700 pages. I showed it to my agent and he said, ‘I love it. It’s really long. What you need to do is get this down to one book without changing any of the plotline.’ It had been two books. I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘This is what you’re going to do. Cut every word that doesn’t need to be there. Streamline it as much as possible.’ It took me two years. That’s why in Who Fears Death, the sentences are short and choppy. That was part of the pain – I had to keep revisiting things that were difficult. It was hard. There’s a lot of rage in Who Fears Death.”

*

‘‘I listen to the stories of the women around me. I listen to my aunts and my cousins. I listen and I watch because there are stories nobody else can tell. I pick those up and when I write about them, I write about them as honestly as I possibly can. I don’t worry about whether it looks good or bad. Family issues, gender issues, all these things became part of Who Fears Death. It went on to win the World Fantasy Award, which was wonderful in ways I don’t talk about often. I was opening up so many issues that I used to keep very quiet, especially about African women. I put them in that story in a really raw, naked way. I didn’t worry about how it was going to be received, about how people would react to the issue of female genital mutilation. I suffered some of the results of that when the book was published. I didn’t know I’d get some of the reactions I got. I had feminists who were angry with me for portraying the ritual sympa­thetically. Some people said I was pro-female-genital mutilation. I was accused of that several times by feminists.

‘‘I was just coming at it honestly. My attitude towards it is not your typi­cal, ‘This is bad and this is barbaric.’ I was looking at it from the inside. How do you change a practice from the inside? You can’t just tell people they’re bad, because they’re never going to listen to you. How about, let’s analyze this practice, truly. Alice Walker comes at it from the angle of, ‘This is barbaric.’ I understand that. She opened up the conversation. But I’ve always felt there’s a better way to discuss this issue. Feminists were coming at me, and I was like, ‘Aren’t we on the same side here?’

‘‘Then you have the traditional, older African audiences. Some of them were academics who came at me. They were a bit confused by Who Fears Death. For one thing, they accused me of washing our dirty laundry in public. They weren’t defending the practice, but they were saying, ‘We should discuss it amongst ourselves. Don’t bring this out in the open.’ My theory is that it comes from the suspicion a lot of African scholars and Africans as a whole have of me. They’re suspi­cious because I’m writing from an outside point of view. I was born and raised in the States, and I may have Nigerian parents and I may have strong connections to Nigeria, but they question my al­legiance. They don’t trust me.”

*

‘‘Whenever I see things happening in the news, the first thing I wonder is: how does that person live their daily life? I’m working on a story set in Timbuktu and I can’t find anything about daily life there. Usually one of the best sources of in­formation is Youtube. You can always find some amateur video, terribly shot, but showing you reg­ular people doing regular things. There’s nothing in Timbuktu. All you can find are the news things about Al Quaeda. You never hear the voices of the people who live there and their mundane, normal worries. Those are the stories I like to read. If I’m reading and the main character is a king, I want to close the book. I want to read about ‘common’ people, because they have some of the best stories. That person, right there, where does he go after this happens?’’

*

‘‘I knew I was not going to hold back when I wrote Lagoon. That’s part of why I did the mul­tiple points of view. I wanted some non-Nigerians in there. I wanted various types of Christians and non-Christians. There weren’t too many Muslims, but there were some. I wanted to run the gamut of these points of view. There’s a lot of truth in Lagoon. What am I going to do, sanitize Lagos? It would be unrecognizable. I don’t mind showing the negatives. In District 9 they can have corrupt Nigerians – there are corrupt Nigerians – but in District 9 there was not one single non-corrupt Nigerian. They were all portrayed as criminals, prostitutes, and cannibals, all of them. I think that putting the Nigerians in District 9 was im­portant. There’s a lot of static between Nigerians and South Africans, so he was hitting on some­thing that’s real. The year before the film came out there were riots between Nigerians and South Africans at a Nigerian market. When I went there, I asked some South Africans what was up, and a lot of them regurgitated the same stereotypes. It’s supposed to be the first science fiction film set in Africa. How come we can’t have a black main character? I gotta say that. South Africa is only 20% white/non-black.”

*

‘‘The Book of Phoenix comes out in May from DAW. It’s a prequel to Who Fears Death, set 300 years earlier, so maybe 80 years from now. It’s told from the point of view of the main charac­ter, Phoenix. She’s a woman who was grown in a place called Tower Seven. She’s an ABO, an Ac­celerated Biological Organism. She’s two years old and she looks 40. There’s a lot of genetic ex­perimenting being done in this tower. There’s a line in Who Fears Death that mentions it. Phoe­nix is one of the wards in Tower Seven. After the man she loves, who’s also a ward in Tower Seven, kills himself, she decides to leave the tower. She’s never left before, and even though they’ve been doing whatever they’ve been doing to her, she thinks her life is normal. She decides that she wants to get out. When she finally does, a lot of things happen. She discovers why she’s named Phoenix. It’s a blend of science fiction and fanta­sy. The illustrator’s name is Eric Battle. He’s done illustrations for D.C. and Marvel. He’s done 10 or 11 spot illustrations for the book. The Book of Phoenix started as a short story, but it kept com­ing. I wrote it as a novella called African Sunrise, published by Subterranean. For that novella, Eric did three or four illustrations, and my DAW editor saw the illustrations and said, ‘That’s re­ally cool.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t we have more?’ I like the idea of visuals for this type of story. It’s a unique book. It goes from New York, to Ghana, to Nigeria. It goes to many places.”

*

‘‘I have a children’s book that I just sold to a small British publisher. It’s called Chicken in the Kitchen. It’s going to be illustrated by an Iranian illustrator. Akata Witch Two: Breaking Kola comes out summer of 2016. I’m working on the edits for that. The title could easily be changed. It’s a sequel, and I know there’s a part three. I know where it’s going. I have some other things in the works but these are the main things. I’m sure I’ll write more blog posts in due time. They come up when something pokes me and makes me mad. Maybe tomorrow something will bite me on the nose.’’


Ken Liu: Silkpunk

Ken Liu (Liu Yukun) was born in 1976 in Lanzhou China. He moved to the US with his family when he was 11 years old, first living in Palo Alto CA before moving to Waterford CT. He was an English major at Harvard, and after graduation worked in technology for several years, including time at Microsoft as an engineer and working for a startup in Cambridge. He attended Harvard Law School, and now works as a litigation consultant.

His first story ‘‘The Carthaginian Rose’’ appeared in 2002, and while he published a handful of stories in the following years, he began to publish more widely and rise to greater prominence around 2010, with scores of stories appearing in the past five years, including major award winners. Story ‘‘The Paper Menagerie’’ (2011) won the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards, and ‘‘Mono no Aware’’ (2012) won a Hugo Award. Other notable short works include Hugo, Sturgeon Memorial, and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’’ (2011); Sturgeon and Nebula Award nominee ‘‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’’ (2012); and Nebula Award finalists ‘‘The Waves’’ (2012), ‘‘All the Flavors’’ (2012), and ‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King’’ (2013); Sidewise Award finalist ‘‘A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel’’ (2013); and WSFA Small Press Award winner ‘‘Good Hunting’’ (2012).

Liu is also a prolific translator of Chinese SF, including SF&F Translation Award winner ‘‘The Fish of Lijiang’’ by Chen Qiufan (2011) and Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novel The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014).

Debut novel The Grace of Kings (2015) begins the ‘‘silkpunk’’ epic fantasy Dandelion Dynasty series, combining elements of traditional Chinese storytelling and Western epic traditions.

Liu lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa Tang Liu, and their two children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I think any story that writers tell about how they came to the genre is likely a lie to some degree. I believe these origin stories are retroactive, neat reconstructions that leave out the randomness of actual experience. They’re instructive because the stories we tell about our own lives are revealing. They’re not ‘the truth.’ I can tell you my story, and it’s true in a sense, but that’s not the same as factual.

‘‘I think I got into writing because I like telling stories. When I was little, my grandmother told me stories she made up, and I liked making up new stories for my friends in class. These stories usually involved changing a classic story in some way that I thought made it better. Even in that experi­ence, I guess you could find a trace of what drew me to science fiction and fantasy: I wanted stories that were improved by speculation.

‘‘I’m writing novels now, trying to expand my creative approach to a longer format. Novels require a lot more planning and concentration than short stories. When I was trying to go from short stories to novels, the biggest trouble I had was with basic recordkeeping. A short story is like sculpting: you can keep the whole thing in your head and chip away at it. Novels feel more like architecture, with a grand structure and thousands of decisions to be made at every level. I started to keep a wiki to record the details about the world. Small decisions you make early on can have repercussions long down the road, so you have to track everything.”

*

‘‘The idea of silkpunk is to rely on organic building materials, material of historic importance to East Asia, but also materials of importance to seafaring cultures of the Pacific. Bamboo, silk, ox sinew, coconut, coral, feathers, things like that. All the machines are designed around principles based on biomechanics. For example, the airships in my novel are made of bamboo and silk, and they are not propelled forward by rotating propellers but by giant feathered oars. The lift gas bags expand and contract in the same way that a fish’s swim bladder does to increase and decrease buoyancy. There are other inventions based around this vocabulary that I think people will like. It’s a new look. It’s not a look derived from Chinese history. I wanted to create a look specifically inspired by East Asia, but that isn’t East Asian.”

‘‘I did not want to write a magical China story. I think magical China stories are difficult to do well, and even then they cannot escape the problem of the colonial gaze. China has been so steeped, since the days of Marco Polo, in a very exoticizing and subjugating gaze by the West, that it’s not possible to tell a story about China without invoking layers of Orientalism and colonialism. It’s in the very nature of the vocabu­lary used to describe China-related concepts. For example, the very important Chinese mythical creatures, dragon and phoenix, shouldn’t be called ‘dragon’ and ‘phoenix’ at all. The Chinese Long and Fenghuang have nothing to do with the Western creatures they are ‘translated’ into. The only reason they’re called that is because early missionaries got to China and saw these creatures, and, knowing nothing about their history and their meaning to the people, gave them the same names as similar-looking Western creatures. That means these creatures are being framed with a set of asso­ciations and meanings that have no justification in terms of Chinese culture. The dragon in the West is the wyrm, the devil’s creature, a demonic thing, and it breathes fire. None of these things apply to the Chinese dragon because it’s not a dragon at all. The dragon there is derived from Buddhism as well as native Chinese mythical influences. The Chinese fire bird also has very little to do with the Western concept of the phoenix. It’s impossible to write ‘‘magical China’’ without evoking these wrongful associations. Rather than struggling against that, I decided to create a secondary fan­tasy world that’s inspired by East Asia. I created an archipelago that’s as different from continental China as possible, and I created new cultures, new histories, new peoples. There are sometimes analogues to the original concepts, but they’re not exact ‘translations.’ That way a reader won’t fall into a trap of easily reading this story as tapping into that set of associated, accumulated layers of Orientalism that I’m trying to avoid. If I don’t do it that way, I think people will read it and start thinking, ‘This is like a samurai; this is like a courtesan; this is like a geisha.’ I don’t want that. This attempt to avoid the Orientalizing risk carries through in terms of the narrative techniques I use.

‘‘The Grace of Kings is written in a mixture of narrative techniques that I invented just for the novel. It uses a lot of techniques derived from Chinese oral storytelling techniques that I’m very familiar with, because I grew up listening to these stories. The way characters are introduced imitates classic Ming dynasty novels. There are characterization techniques taken from wuxia novels. At the same time, I deliberately wanted to make comparisons and evoke for readers the feel­ing of the other epic traditions. So there are tropes and narrative techniques taken from The Iliad, and The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. There are Anglo-Saxon style kennings, for example, and catalogs like in oral epics. It is a deliberate meld­ing of epic techniques and traditions. The hope is that it will feel to the reader like something both familiar and strange at the same time.”

*

‘‘The next book will have some of the same characters and some new ones. It will happen some time after the first book’s ending. It’s not like everybody has died of old age and you have new characters coming onto the scene, but it’s also not like it’s the next day. It’s somewhere in between. The way I plotted these three books is that there is going to be an overall arc, or set of arcs, that will be resolved in the series. I tried to write the books so they’re each somewhat self-contained, and they also form an arc, more like the Dune series, as opposed to writing the trilogy as if it’s one book. This is not like The Lord of the Rings, where the books are one book that happened to be published in three pieces. My books are written separately. They have an arc that connects them. There is a rough draft of the second book but it’s not finished. There’s a lot more work to be done.”

*

“I’ve done a lot of studying and thinking about translation in general. In particular for The Three Body Problem, there are a lot of complications in the translation process. People give translators too little credit and too much credit at the same time. If you’re going to give the translator credit for doing something well, you also need to blame them for everything that’s not good in the book, and that doesn’t seem right in either case. I don’t think the translator should ‘improve’ the work beyond what it is. I know that a lot of people disagree with me, but that’s my belief.

‘‘One of the things that surprised a lot of American readers is the fact that The Three-Body Problem being translated into English and then nominated for a Nebula Award was such a huge deal in China. It’s inconceivable for readers here. Some reporters asked me, ‘Why are Chinese read­ers so excited about the Nebula Award? American fans wouldn’t be so excited if one of their books was translated into Chinese and won some award.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t care. You’re coming from the modern Rome, the core of world culture, whereas China is at the periphery. For Chinese fans, something they love in their language is being recognized by readers in America, who are perceived as the prestige readers.’ One of the aspects of being from a prestigious culture is that you don’t necessarily per­ceive yourself as having power.”

*

‘‘Joshua Rothman from the New Yorker wrote a profile about Liu Cixin recently. He said one of the interesting things about American science fiction versus Chinese science fiction is that a lot of American science fiction is consciously or unconsciously reflecting on our own history. There’s a large concern about the frontier, and developing the frontier, which is reflective of our own experience with the frontier. There are also a lot of concerns about problems of democratic governance and how to develop a society based on the Constitution, and all these problems based on very American political and historical experi­ences. He says that’s natural, and that’s what you’d expect – we’re the American people and that’s our history. When we imagine the future, these things come through. What’s interesting about looking at another culture’s science fiction is that you see different experiences reflected. What I’m hoping is that by seeing more of Chinese science fiction published in English, people can get a sense of what Chinese writers, people who are steeped in postcolonialism, a cosmopolitan mix of native and Western influences, and the tumultuous experi­ences of the 20th century, what sort of concerns are reflected in their writing, and what kind of lessons those can teach us. That’s one of the things that The Three Body Problem and its sequels consider. They talk about the idea of first contact and aliens from a new perspective.’’


Cory Doctorow: Shorter

When I started writing, I thought I was talented. I was six, and I’d written something precocious that attracted praise from the grownups around me, and that praise included a descriptive dimension: I hadn’t just written something that was good – I was a good writer.

Talent is a destructive myth. To call someone talented is to imply that their abilities are intrinsic. Having written and taught for decades now, I’ve satisfied myself that the improvement of a person’s art isn’t drawn from the mystical well of their soul: it’s generated by practice.

Practicing isn’t always hard. At times, practice is joyous. When you are working at the edge of your abilities, acquiring mastery of something difficult that you value, practice is the best feeling. But if you only practice when it brings you joy, you won’t practice much. Logging the requisite hours inevitably involves some slogging.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmi­halyi (‘‘Me-high Chick-sent-me-high’’) is a leading authority on learning, practice and motivation. It was in his work that I encountered the idea that ‘‘ability’’ wasn’t made of some in-built talent, but repre­sented continuous reflection, feedback and refinement, over a series of attempts to master your art.

A belief in your own talent can be a powerful motivator. After getting all that praise, I wrote more, and was praised anew. So long as writing was fun (and it often was, and still is), I kept at it. When it grew choresome, I stopped. This is entirely consistent with the literature. One ingenious experiment divided high-performing students into two groups: the first was comprised of children who believed that their academic suc­cess was the result of practice; the other believed that their talent had taken them far. Both groups were given a test that was harder than they could possibly complete.

The ‘‘practice’’ students worked at their tests for much longer than the ‘‘talent’’ kids, who gave up quickly and were dispirited afterwards. After all, if you owe it all to talent, then when talent fails, there’s nothing to do except for wait for the fates to add more talent to your capacity. The ‘‘practice’’ group kept plugging. When they were done, they were of good spirits. If your ability comes from practice and you are assigned a task that is beyond it, then you just need to practice some more.

The best piece of writing advice I ever ignored was to write every day. Boy, did I ignore this advice. I heard it dozens of times, from writers I admired, but I didn’t start doing it until I got to my second or third novel. Writing every day is fantastic, because it habituates you to writing. Habits are things you get for free. As anyone who’s raised a child knows, there are a lot of boring things that we don’t notice because they’re such deep-grained habits that they happen as if by magic. I brush my teeth without having to think about it. My seven year old daughter practically needs to be arm-twisted to clean her teeth.

For years, I’ve been a repentant daily writing sinner, telling anyone who’ll listen to ‘‘write every day, until it becomes a habit, because habits are things you get for free.’’ It’s worked for me: despite a busy professional life involving a lot of activist work, freelance assignments, and several side-businesses, I have written or co-written about 20 books since 2000. I’m no Charlie Stross, but I’m hardly Harper Lee, either. When I have a book to write, I pick a schedule and a word-count – 1,000 words a day, five days a week, for six months, say – and get to it. There’s rewriting at the end of course – reading the book aloud to find infelicities in the language, ‘‘structural’’ rewrites to meet my editor’s requests, and fixing stuff the copyeditor, first readers, and proofers find.

Now I’ve had a revelation about prac­tice – practicing the kind of writing you’re good at can make you better at it, but practicing the stuff you’re bad at is even better.

About two years ago, we changed the layout for Boing Boing, the website I co-own and post to several times every day. The change gets more good stuff onto the front page, and lets the substantive pieces hang around longer without being pushed down by slight things.

The new layout means each story gets a brief teaser sentence – the lede – and a short headline, which has to be short enough to tweet with room left over for an image embed and a URL.

I hated this. I’d been used to assuming that readers would get five or ten times more text on the front page to help them decide whether to click through to the rest. Writing shorter – much shorter – meant that something crucial was left out.

But you get better at anything you do, especially if you get feedback. We get lots of feedback on Boing Boing, from comments, to analytics, to social media responses. Two years of writing 10-20 very short ledes daily, along with regular Twitter use, imbued me with a smooth facility for brevity that I find delightful and horrifying.

In January 2015, I finished the first draft of Utopia, an epic novel for adults, which ran to more than 220,000 words (!). After conferring with my agent, I agreed that I would shorten the book to 150,000 words. I sat down to re-read it, and as I did, noticed redundancies in the language. They leapt off the page. As an experiment, I took the first 5,000 words of the book and spent 45 minutes trimming them. When I was done, I did a word-count and discovered that I was down to 4,100 words.

Since then, I’ve peeled out the next 5,000 words every day and had at them. It’s getting faster – today took only 40 minutes. I’m cutting more, too. I ended with 3,968 words today. At this rate, I’ll excise 50,000 words from the book with line edits alone.

Cutting like this has made me a better writer, too: I catch myself when I’m about to write the prototypical excesses I’m finding in my prose, eradicate them before they’re even set down. I haven’t had a hint of ‘‘cen­tipede’s dilemma’’ from this (‘‘how do you walk with all those legs?’’ ‘‘I never thought about it’’ – and the centipede never walked again).

This isn’t surprising, exactly. It’s just what the theory predicts: prac­tice makes perfect, especially when it’s conscious, iterated practice with feedback.

But it’s vindicating. It also makes me understand why authors itch to release ‘‘preferred texts’’ of their novels decades later.

My experience contrasts with the moral panic over the decline in writ­ing standards due to the Internet. Those who wring their hands at the informality and vernacular of instant messaging and social media prose have missed the point: when we practice writing short, for an audience, as a kind of performance, it makes us better writers.


Melissa Marr: Otherworldly

Melissa Marr was born July 25, 1972 in rural Pennsylvania. She graduated high school in 1990 and put herself through college partly by working at biker bars. She earned a Master’s degree in Southern literature at NC State University, where she later taught English and Gender Studies.

She began publishing short fiction in 2005, and in 2007 published her debut novel, YA fantasy Wicked Lovely, which went on to become an international bestseller. The series continued with Ink Exchange (2008), Fragile Eternity (2009), Radiant Shadows (2010), and Darkest Mercy (2011). She also wrote the related Wicked Lovely: Desert Tales manga series in three volumes: Sanctuary (2009), Challenge (2010), and Resolve (2011). That was followed by YA fantasy Carnival of Secrets (2012, originally published as Carnival of Souls). She wrote middle-grade fantasy trilogy the Blackwell Pages with Kelley Armstrong (writing as M.A. Marr & K.L. Armstrong): Loki’s Wolves (2013), Odin’s Ravens (2014), and the forthcoming Thor’s Serpents. Her adult novels are dark Southern fantasy Graveminder (2011) and Old West-inspired portal fantasy The Arrivals (2013). Some of her short fiction was collected in Faery Tales and Nightmares (2011). Marr has co-edited anthologies, including Enthralled (2011) and Shards and Ashes (2013) with Kelley Armstrong, and Rags & Bones (2013) with Tim Pratt.

Her latest novel is a contemporary YA with paranormal elements, Made for You (2014). Upcoming titles include her first children’s picture book, Bunny Roo, I Love You, in April 2015 and YA fantasy Seven Black Diamonds in 2016.

Marr lives in Virginia with her husband and their three children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘A lot of the best literature has fantasy aspects. This is something I ar­gued as an academic. Speculative fiction is how we talk about things we aren’t ready to talk about in literal ways. Our literary ancestors did some amazing things by using speculative elements. That tradition, whether it’s folklore or literature, is what I want to be part of. Sometimes the most pressing issues are ones we can discuss best metaphorically, using otherworldly elements, be they magic or other types of beings. Look at Dracula and the fear of female independence. Look at Frankenstein and the fear of motherhood, and the fear of science. There’s so much richness there. That, to me, is what it’s all about. The best literature’s got SF and fantasy in it.

‘‘I grew up in a small, rural community where belief in the supernatu­ral was fairly normal. I belonged to a community that was Irish Catholic, but with strong pagan overtones. I grew up surrounded by religious tradi­tion, folklore, and storytelling. I was 12 when I decided I wanted to do three things with my life: I wanted to be a mommy, a teacher, and a writer. The hope was that being a teacher would enable me to afford to write someday. Then, as a teen, I had the misfortune of being raped, and was told I couldn’t have children as a result of the damage. So then the revised goal became teaching so I could afford to adopt. Jump forward a few years and I had an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature, and the only writing I was doing was academic, lecture notes and the essays. When I married a Marine who deployed, I went from working full-time to home-schooling my kids, teaching part-time, and not being able to sleep because my husband was being shot at – so I wrote my first book. It was horrible and has never been published and never will be. Immediately after that, I started writing what would become Wicked Lovely. Initially it was a short story, and in 2005 it became a novel which sold in a preempt within three days of submission. That was ten years ago last month. Then came other novels, so now I don’t teach. I write.”

*

‘‘My newest book, Made For You, is my first time stepping away from more strictly genre work to a book that is primarily contemporary. There is a supernatural element, because I can’t not have that. In part, it’s inspired by my own experience of having a stalker when I was in my twenties. This is one of the first times I’ve really put myself in the head of the antagonist in a novel, which is sort of what you do when you’re try­ing to understand why you’re being stalked. When my publisher invited me to write something more contemporary, it was clear this was the right book. I got to write from the perspective of a serial killer. I did research over the years, because I’m fascinated by crime, but some of that comes from having my own stalker. In fact, being stalked resulted in the first time I was quoted in a newspaper: ‘‘‘I got me a gun,’’ Melissa Marr, in­structor, English, NC State University.’ (I have to believe my rural/South­ern accent wasn’t quite that pronounced at the time.) Either way, though, I had a stalker, and the police recommended I have home protection, so I went out and bought a shotgun. I was curious then and now about what causes people to become stalkers. My stalker was a stranger – it wasn’t someone I had taught, or dated, or any of the things the police asked. The process of identi­fying the stalker was made even more complicated by the fact that I have trouble identifying faces. So for Made For You I used some of my own experi­ences for research in a way I’ve never before been able to do in a book.”

*

‘‘One of the things I get out of short stories is the way I can play with different voices and styles that I don’t have to sustain for 80,000 words. My readers are more forgiving of me going in totally new directions in a short story, so it lets me exper­iment. With short stories there is also something palate-cleansing about it. Every year I have one or two stories that I write in between books or in my off time, or if I’m stuck on a book, I have this little gem that’s just mine. Some of them I sell, and some of them I don’t. Some I don’t share with anyone. The short story is my private space where I can be the kind of writer I would love to have the leisure to be. People talk about how they want to retire and write a novel. I want to retire and write short stories! That and poetry. That’s my retire­ment fantasy. I write poetry now, but I don’t share it with anyone. Oh, and I’d also like to do the sort of literary things that I once taught! But those aren’t going to pay the bills for my children’s pas­sions. I’ve got a teenager working on his private pilot’s license, and a daughter finishing a univer­sity degree in archaeology and anthropology, and in her free time going off to live in the jungle and work on Mayan ruins. Adopting a baby with my youngest’s health issues cost more than some of my book deals. Children are expensive. The kind of literary novels I fantasize I will someday be able to write aren’t going to allow me to be the sort of mom I want to be for them.”

*

‘‘My drive is definitely characters. If I don’t have a character, I don’t know what the plot’s going to be, because I believe plot is a result of characters and their individual motivations being in conflict. Everything I write has multiple points of view. I think that’s life. Understanding who we are and where we’re going is often done in the context of those around us. Sometimes things that seem reprehensible make sense if you get into the other person’s shoes. I think when I figured that out… well, as my first editor was fond of putting in my biography, I ran a biker bar in North Caro­lina. That was how I paid the bills. Those people were a gift to know. One of the things that became very clear to me is that, when you work in a place with a different set of social rules, your sense of what is ‘right’ will shift. Working there made me realize how much the objective idea of right and wrong is not possible. Things that were right in most circumstances would not have been right in that bar, and things that were right in that bar would not have been right in the university where I was teaching. That experience had a big impact on how I see the world and how I write, because I know that people others might see as villainous don’t think of themselves in that way. If we boil down their motivations, we can see where they’re coming from. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of acts that are reprehensible okay, but it does make them comprehensible.”

*

‘‘My next YA, Seven Black Diamonds, which I just finished revising, comes out January 2016 with HarperCollins. It’s the first in a duology, faery series. Now that I have a few books between the first faery series and now, I felt comfortable going back and writing another faery book. ‘Faery sleeper cells’ is the premise. With my environmen­tal concerns, it seemed like faery terrorists would be fun to explore. Look at the way humanity is destroying the earth. What happens if you have supernatural beings who require healthy nature to thrive? Basically, I took the concept of guerilla warfare and applied it to angry faeries in a near-future setting.”


Spotlight on: Alyssa Wong, Author

Alyssa Wong is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, Black Static, and Tor.com. You can find her on twitter as @crashwong and tumblr at www.crashwong.tumblr.com.

You’re a Nebula Award nominee for your story ‘‘The Fisher Queen’’. Tell us about the piece.

‘‘The Fisher Queen’’ is about the dark side of the mer­maid fishing industry on the Mekong River, and the painful, personal damage of systematic, multigenerational violence against women. It’s a story about growing up too fast, and about having an intense, deep love for your family, only to find out that they’re the monsters they were supposed to be protecting you from.

I originally wrote ‘‘The Fisher Queen’’ as a wedding pres­ent for a friend of mine, since I’d promised her a mermaid story. It’s not terribly romantic, so some days I wonder if I should’ve just gotten her a very nice blender instead.

What’s the particular appeal of SF/fantasy? Why do you write that instead of, say, literary fiction or mysteries?

The fantastic is beautiful and terrible, and I love the way it can be used to highlight and heighten people’s very real experiences. Also, I like ghosts, magic, and molecular reconstruction. With science fiction and fantasy, your limits are only as far as you’re willing to push your imagination, and figuring out how to interface that kind of potential with the story you want to tell is the best kind of challenge.

I love hybridized stories. I mean, my brain is hybridized as hell; I enjoy literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, but I also can’t get enough of police procedural thrillers and fan fiction, so I read them all. SF/F is my first love, and it’s definitely ingrained in the way I think about narrative. Figuring out how to marry it to the other genres and structures I like is really fun.

You’ve described yourself as being both honored and humbled to become the first Filipina Nebula Award finalist, and you often discuss the need for more diverse voices in SF. How’s the field doing in that regard? Are things getting better?

I think they are. It’s been heartening to see #WeNeedDiverseBooks sweeping children’s publishing, and with Kickstarters like Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! and Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, it’s become evident that there are good people in genre championing diversity. However, I think it’s important to remember that diversity is intersectional: it means making a consistent effort to seek out stories by and about people of color, people who identify as QUILTBAG (queer/undecided/intersex/lesbian/trans/bi/asexual/gay/genderqueer), writers from underrepresented socioeconomic classes, and/or writers from non-Western countries.

I do think that the field is becoming more and more globalized, and the awards slates – with stories by diverse writers from all over the world, and novels in translation like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem – are starting to reflect that. But diversity isn’t a trend; it’s a constant battle to change an existing culture that shuts us out. It’s not about pushing people out of the market, but about expanding it to make space for a myriad of underrepresented voices. And for editors, publishers, and agents, being committed to diversity means reaching out to people who might not have the resources to find you and encouraging them to submit their work. It’s a long fight, but it’s worth it, and it means so much to those of us who are watching.

Any plans to write a novel?

Definitely. I’m working on a few projects right now, including a Southern Gothic YA and an adult science fiction noir novel. I do best when I’m working on multiple stories at once, with one in high focus and the others simmering on the backburner.

My top priority right now, though, is a sci-fi novella, and I love short fiction too much to give that up.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

I’m a sucker for weird biology stories, as well as stories about ghosts, poison­ous friendships, and deep-seated regret. Someday I’ll find the core of a story with all of these things in it and I’ll be able to write what I crave.

I was eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, as were many fantastic, diverse writers like Usman T. Malik, J.Y. Yang, Isabel Yap, and Sam J. Miller. Their stories this past year have consistently impressed me and torn my heart to pieces. You should definitely check out their work!


Christopher Barzak: Visions & Voices

Christopher Michael Barzak was born July 21, 1975 in Warren OH, and grew up in Kinsman OH. He attended Youngstown State University, graduating summa cum laude with a BA in English and a minor in Psychology in 1998, the same year he attended the Clarion writing workshop. He lived in Carlsbad CA for a year after graduation, then worked as a clerk at a bookstore and library in Lansing MI for two years. He moved back to Youngstown in 2001 for an MA in English and Creative Writing. In 2004 he moved to Japan, where he spent two years teaching English in elementary and junior high schools. He returned to Youngstown in 2006, where he now writes and teaches fiction writing at YSU and in the Northeast Ohio MFA program.

He began publishing with ‘‘A Mad Tea Party’’ in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (1999). ‘‘The Other Angelas’’ (2004) was on the Tiptree Award longlist, ‘‘The Language of Moths’’ (2005) was a Nebula finalist and winner of a Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and ‘‘Map of Seventeen’’ (2010) and ‘‘Paranormal Romance’’ (2013) were Nebula Award finalists. Some of his short fiction was collected in Birds and Birthdays (2012) and Before and Afterlives (2013), the latter a Shirley Jackson Award winner.

His story ‘‘Dead Boy Found’’ (2003) was the basis for first novel One for Sorrow (2007), winner of the Crawford Award for best first fantasy. The book was adapted as film Jamie Marks Is Dead in 2014. Second book The Love We Share Without Knowing (2008), a mosaic novel inspired by his experiences in Japan, was a Nebula Award finalist, and on the Tiptree honor list. His first YA novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, is forthcoming this fall.

Barzak lives in Youngstown OH with his partner Tony Romandetti.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The new book is called Wonders of the Invisible World. It’s about a 17-year-old in rural Ohio. He discovers that there’s a whole lot about himself and his family’s history that he didn’t know, and that his history and parts of his memories have been obscured by magical means. He discovers this when a new student approaches him in a hallway at school his senior year and remembers him from their childhood, and says they were best friends. This person seems to know things about him that he doesn’t recall. Very quickly after that, the spell that he’s been under starts to unravel. He begins putting together pieces of his life that come to him in visions, and discovers there’s an entire invisible world he belongs to. It’s a metaphor, in some ways, for the experience that young people go through, where you kind of awaken and realize there’s a much bigger world that you’re a part of, larger than the small world you’ve been operating in. It happens as you reach the end of adolescence and your time in the high school prison system. You face the question, ‘Who am I after this?’ I wanted to rephrase that question, which is often asked in young-adult fiction, and instead ask, ‘Who am I, in the context of the past I might not know about?’ Both in terms of personal, family history, and the cultural, national past. You are already part of something you don’t understand and never knew existed.”

*

‘‘Transformation is something that obsesses me. What is the soul? Is there a difference between something like a soul and something like a self? Is our identity something we construct, or is it organic and natural? There are all kinds of theories. It’s interested me from a young age. I remember being a very small child and climbing up to look at myself in the mirror – I had to be four or five because I remember the struggle of climbing up onto the bathroom vanity – and looking at myself and asking, ‘Who are you?’ I look back and think, ‘You are such a strange little boy.’ It was a moment when I tried to make sense of my existence in the world. I’ve always found being alive a really strange situation. I’ve always questioned it. I’m always asking: ‘Who are you?’

‘‘Our vision is limited by the fact of our biology, and we know that on a scientific level. We create technology in order to see things we can’t perceive on our own, in other spectra. That fact leads to the idea that there are things we’ll never be able to observe, at least not with the tools we have now. My hope is that there’s more to the world than we can see. I enjoy this world, and I’m grateful for it, but I hope it’s one stop in a much bigger universe. That’s wishful thinking. I always say I hope – I don’t believe there’s anything beyond this world. I don’t like to believe anything at all, because beliefs are just a feeling about something. We all have beliefs, and not just about spirituality. We have political beliefs, too. It’s an opinion, an idea, and they change. Beliefs change as well, so I don’t like to hold them close to me. I entertain ideas, but I don’t subscribe to anything. I was raised in this odd mix of philosophies, where my father’s side of the family was very grounded, all common sense and hitched to observable reality. They weren’t much for philosophical or spiritual thinking. It was more about doing what you’ve got to do to get by. My mother’s side was made up of more magical thinkers – her and her mother really did have this kind of magical system. They interpreted dreams, and it was their own dream system, nothing you could find in a book. I think it was a superstition my grandmother learned. Her parents were Polish immigrants. She grew up with old Eastern European ideas and beliefs. I’ve tried to track down some of her ideas, and they really feel invented, and not any part of a system I can locate. A very private family mythology. That worldview influenced One for Sorrow, but I expanded on it in Wonders of the Invisible World.”

*

‘‘I really do feel like I was born to write and tell stories. From a very early age I felt, ‘This is too rich, there’s too much good stuff going on here.’ My grandmother told ghost stories – stories that weren’t just invented, they were things that she saw, and she had these elaborate tales. I’m a slow-waker, and I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s a genetic predisposition and if it’s something that my mom or her mother did. Did they experience liminal dreamlike states, and this is how they made sense of it? Interpreting things they saw when they were technically awake but their brain was two steps behind, or ahead? I definitely had nightmares. I had a period when I would sleepwalk. Sometimes I still do. My parents would find me in different places, like the basement. One time they found me outside. Luckily, we were in the country; I didn’t walk out into traffic or anything. I was in the back­yard, which is next to a cornfield, just at the edge of it, standing and looking into the corn. This is our reality, and it’s as strange as that. That magical tradition is on my mom’s side, not so much on my dad’s. I was glad that I had both. Maybe that’s why I like magical realist fiction, because there’s this push and pull. I feel fortunate that I was exposed to both modes, and there are other modes, too. I was fortunate to realize from a young age that the things my mother and her mother experienced and believed were not common. I realized the stories our larger society and culture have accepted are just stories, too. I was really aware of that, and I think it was because of the personal, private beliefs and superstitions that my mom and her mom had. These are stories that other people would think are strange, and not necessarily true. What’s to say these other stories that large numbers of people believe are any more true? I felt good about that. It made me question everything from a young age.”

*

‘‘One for Sorrow was published in August of 2007. In spring of 2008, my then-agent e-mailed to tell me there was a director interested in my book. He told me his name, Carter Smith. … ‘‘We probably talked off and on for a couple of years. In the spring of 2012 it seemed Carter had a group of people, a production company was form­ing, and they were casting and location scouting. In December of 2012 they were ready to buy the rights completely. Three or four months later they were filming. My partner Tony and I went to do a set visit one weekend during spring break, so I got to see some of the scenes being made. I also got to see some stuff being filmed that didn’t make it into the final cut. It was fantastic seeing things from my imagination being visually constructed, to step into my character’s house and see him and the ghost of Jamie Marks sitting together on a bed, saying words I’d written. Talk about liminal states. It was very magical.”
*

‘‘I have just completed a first draft of another novel called A Manual for the Most Effective Usage of Fallen Stars. I’m going to have to find a shorter title eventually. That’s a young-adult book. I’m still sitting on it, and it’s a first draft. I usually take them through a number of drafts. I always write whatever I want to write and hope that somebody will want to buy it. My editor at Knopf is eager to see the new book and she loves the title. Eventually when I feel confident, I’m going to look at it again and see what else I can do with it, and hopefully she’ll like it. I also have one more story to write for this collection of retellings and adaptations based on classic genre and children’s literature. I started writing stories in that vein a few years ago. The first one I wrote is ‘Invisible Men’, which was a finalist for the Million Writers Award, and was originally published in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online, and reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. It was meant to be a fun experiment for me, because I’d read H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. I was put off by the description of the rural villagers in the book. Wells made fun of them in a lot of ways, unneces­sarily. He clearly looked down on them. I felt badly about that; I’m from a rural background myself. So I started to write that story in the voice of a young girl who works as a maid in the inn where the invisible man stays for four months, trying to cure himself. I wanted to give her a voice. The story’s about that – who’s truly invisible in that book? I got really great responses to that story and I was invigorated by it, because I’d never done anything so consciously working with someone else’s material. I wanted to investigate other books that I loved. Sometimes there are wrongs I want to right, and sometimes I think there’s something the author might have had a hard time talking about in the period they were writing in. I have one more to write before the book is done. Then that collection will be finished, ten stories in all. I’ll give that to Barry, too, and hope for the best. I do everything on a wing and a prayer. Hopefully there will be a publisher interested in it.’’



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