The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field

Locus Online
  
Sub Menu contents

Recent Posts

Archives

 




 

Neal Stephenson: Exponential Crisis

Neal Town Stephenson was born October 31, 1959 in Fort Meade MD, and grew up in Iowa. In 1981 he graduated from Boston University with a BA in geography and a minor in physics.

His first novel The Big U, a college thriller with SF elements, appeared in 1984, followed by Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (1988). The successful and influential Snow Crash (1992) is a cyberpunk classic, and made him a star in the SF world. He wrote two thrillers in collaboration with his uncle, George Jewsbury, under the name Stephen Bury: Interface (1994) and Cobweb (1996). Concurrently he produced the Hugo and Locus Award-winning novel The Diamond Age (1995). In 1999 he broke new ground with Locus Award winner Cryptonomicon, his massive, Pynchonesque novel of history and cryptography, which proved quite popular with SF fans. Later that year he published In the Beginning… Was the Command Line, an often humorous non-fiction commentary on computers and culture that originally appeared in shortened form on the Internet. He contributed articles to Wired, and some of his non-fiction was collected in Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing (2012).

Stephenson spent seven years at work on his vast three-volume Baroque Cycle, which includes the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004). These books, set in the 17th century and featuring historical characters like Leibniz and Newton along with the ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon, pushed the boundaries of SF. Anathem (2008) is another long, complex book, and more purely SF; it was a finalist for Clarke, Hugo, and Campbell Memorial Awards. Reamde (2011) is a thriller with cutting-edge technological elements. Newest novel Seveneves (2014) is a saga that spans millennia, about a space ark launched in the midst of a global catastrophe. Fall, featuring some characters from Reamde, is forthcoming.

With Greg Bear and other writers he collaborated on serialized historical adventure The Mongoliad (2010-2012). He founded Project Hieroglyph – an initiative devoted to writing plausible, optimistic, near-future SF – in partnership with Arizona State University in 2011. The project’s first publication was anthology Hieroglyph, edited by Kathryn Cramer & Ed Finn (2014).

Stephenson lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife (married 1985).


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The idea for the disaster in Seveneves came from some research on the problem of debris in low earth orbit, suggesting that when two of these objects happen to hit each other, because they’re moving at incredibly high relative velocities, they tend to shatter and make more fragments. It runs the risk of becoming an exponential phenomenon, putting so much debris in lower orbit, that we couldn’t use space any­more. I don’t remember where this research was published, but it was an idea that was in the air. It got a little re-boost coincidentally while I was working on the book. The Chinese military tested an anti-satellite device that went up and struck some target and shattered it into a large number of fragments. The test worked, but it reactivated everyone’s fears about that problem. I’d been thinking it would be interesting to write a Space Ark book. When I was a kid, I read one through the book­mobile in Ames IA – I don’t remember the title or the author, but it made a big impression on me.

‘‘The overall trend of big space stories, at least in media, is very ship-centric, very interstellar-centric. It’s always about the ship, and about traveling to other solar systems.

‘‘I went to the Starship Century conference in San Diego. Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, and Geoff Landis – the whole gang was there. There was a pretty exhaustive survey of all of the ideas people have talk­ed about for going to another star system. Barring some huge advance that we can’t anticipate, you end up sending incredibly tiny payloads quickly, or reasonable sized payloads very, very slowly. The most con­vincing case was from Freeman Dyson, who has this idea to plant seeds in the iceballs in the Oort cloud. They would grow trees that would have leaves with transparent greenhouse structures that would collect enough light to warm the inside of the iceball. Over time, these trees could gradually propagate through the Oort cloud until it reached half­way to the next star. At some point, you can reach other stars that way. It’s very slow, and way beyond the scale we normally think about. It’s an amazing idea. I was starting to think that maybe the ship-centric model was limiting, that it might be interesting to see what can be produced near Earth, inside the solar system, with no warp drive, no teleportation, and no faster than light travel – something more about habitats and big machines, and less about ships.”

*

‘‘If a global catastrophe happens too fast, you don’t have time to build an ark, and if it comes too slowly, you’ll probably solve the problem. How short term is short term enough to make people take decisive action? How does our per­ception of risk skew the decisions we make? 9/11 definitely galvanized people, and that was a spec­tacular event: it was foreign people hurting us at home with fire. Everything about the attack was calculated to have that effect. Climate change is the thing that seems impossible to get people to take concerted action on. In Seveneves I had to fine-tune my end-of-the-world scenario so there was time.”

*
‘‘I always had a clear idea in my head of what the end state was – what the civilization would look like fully formed. That’s the payoff for ev­erything that happens in the first part of the book. Just to end the book with the council of the Seven Eves would be unsatisfying, because you’d want to know what happened next. I wanted to do enough storytelling within the future universe to depict the world, to show all of the different races and subraces that had emerged, and to give some sense of the machinery of how everything works. That was the structure we ended up with – when I say ‘we’ I mean me and my editor Jennifer Brehl.

‘‘People aren’t really that different in that fu­ture. This isn’t a social science fiction novel in the sense of describing huge shifts in what it means to be human. To me that felt like a reasonable way to do it. The nature of these people and their situ­ation is, they’re always looking back to the civi­lization that was before, and that was destroyed. They’re looking back to their respective Eves as the benchmarks for what their roles are, and who they are, and how they should behave. For most of the 5,000-year span that the book covers, they’re trying to stay alive, living in very desper­ate conditions, and don’t have a lot of decisions to make. Being on a submarine when the depth charges are going off all around you means that not a lot of social development is going to hap­pen. It’s only in the final thousand years or so that they’re starting to build comfortable space habi­tats where they can have trees and running water, the things that we’re all accustomed to now. It’s a society still shaped by the privations that people went through, and it’s backward-looking in a way.”

*

‘‘We came out with the Hieroglyph anthology last year, and got some interesting stories out of it. It was fascinating to see what different writ­ers chose to do with the basic game plan that we handed to them. Project Hiergolyph emerged from a spontaneous conversation with Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, a few years ago. We were talking about the utility, or lack thereof, of science fiction. The question was, ‘Is science fiction useful in any sense be­yond just inspiring people to become scientists? Does it shape the direction of technology? Should it try to do so?’ So he, tongue in cheek, issued a challenge, saying the engineers are ready to go, they’ve got tools and are ready to get busy, and they just need science fiction writers to get off their butts and give them some optimistic vi­sions to work towards. We’re really talking about media science fiction more than written science fiction. With written science fiction there’s a tre­mendous volume of material coming out and a lot of diversity in that material. It’s pointless to make blanket statements, like, you know, ‘Everything’s dystopian.’ It’s not really true. But depictions of the future in movies and video games and TV are almost uniformly dystopian and dark. It would be nice to break that habit.”

*

“There’s something about the na­ture of argumentation on social media that is a hundred times worse. Just today, I read an article about how the English accent and the American accent have evolved in different ways since Co­lonial times, which is all based on hard research by PhD linguists. I’m sure it’s all footnoted. Im­mediately below it there were comments from all these people saying, ‘I don’t agree with that. I think it happened because of this.’ Throwing in their anecdotes, and their personal theories they just made up 30 seconds ago. That’s not helpful.

‘‘I only use social media to announce things. I do outgoing social media; I don’t do incoming social media. It’s the best compromise I can come up with. It’s sort of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of thing. I saw some post last year about Seveneves long before it came out, someone was saying, ‘HarperCollins says they’re publishing this book by Neal Stephenson next year. He’s not mentioning it on social media, so there must be a problem he’s not telling us about.’ The best compromise I could come up with was to do the occasional outgoing post to let people know what’s going on, and not get hung up on trying to read and respond in detail. Really smart engineers are tweaking those social media sys­tems, creating this compulsion to respond, and you have to be aware of that fact. The bad and the good are so mixed up with each other. I can check Facebook and see brilliant posts, hilarious witti­cisms, and important news from my friends, and it’s mixed up with just the most ridiculous bits of fluff and personality quizzes.”


Wesley Chu: Timelines

Wesley Chu was born September 23, 1976 as 朱恆昱 in Taipei on the island of Taiwan. His family relocated to Nebraska in 1982, and soon moved to Chicago IL. He studied computer science at the University of Illinois, graduating with a management information systems degree and working for a consulting company and dotcoms before spending ten years working on banking systems. An accomplished gymnast and martial artist, Chu has also worked as a stuntman and actor, appearing in films and on television. He became a full-time writer in 2014.

Debut novel The Lives of Tao appeared in 2013, launching the Tao series of humorous SF novels, which includes The Deaths of Tao (2013) and The Rebirths of Tao (2015). The Io spin-off series is forthcoming, with The Rise of Io scheduled for 2016. His latest novel is Time Salvager (2015), first in a planned time-travel trilogy. Time Salvager was optioned for film before it was even published, with director Michael Bay attached.

Chu was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2014, and just won the award this year. He lives in Chicago with his wife, attorney Paula Kim.


Excerpts from the interview:

“I’m the most independent of my siblings, and I’m also the black sheep. Not in terms of behavior, but I’ll do things they don’t want me to do. My parents have been trying to convince me to not do anything artistic or athletic for the past 30 years. It was all about being a good student and not getting distracted by the ‘other’ stuff. Other stuff being just about everything else. Except violin. That was okay.”

*

“I didn’t know much about the industry until I got published – I didn’t know there were conventions, and I didn’t know what Worldcon was. I knew what a Hugo Award was, but I didn’t know how you won one. This whole thing was new to me until Chicon in 2012. I was that guy in a cabin in the woods for a long time – I was this ghost hovering around cafés in Chicago. I’d pick a new café to write in every month, so for one month I’d sit in that café. All the wait­resses would think I was weird. I’d order a bottomless cup of coffee and abuse the shit out of that policy. Writing groups never worked for me, partly because it’s hard to workshop a novel. It was a pretty lonely existence until Worldcon happened. It never occurred to me to look online, and there are communities online. At Worldcon I introduced myself to everybody. It worked.”

*
“I have a thing where I dream up my plots. It’s cool. I’ve dreamed up four of my plots now. For The Lives of Tao it wasn’t so much a dream but the alarm clock ringing. I was doing the whole rolling around in bed thing. Basically I imagined that the alarm clock was an alien telling me to wake up and work out. From there I slowly ex­panded the concept. The Lives of Tao is a late coming-of-age story. It won the Alex Award, which is for adult fiction that’s good for teens. It’s about a guy who finds himself and reaches his potential, but not until he’s 30 years old. At the time I was very unhappy with my career. It was one of those corporate jobs where I was in a cu­bicle. The walls were carpeted red and blue. I was very unhappy with what I was doing with my life. That’s why I started writing. I followed the same journey that Roen Tan does. By writing his story, I found myself. I’m basically Roen Tan. It’s prob­ably the most honest story I’ll ever write. I even have a lot of his mannerisms. When my dad first read the story, he was like, ‘It’s a good story, son. He’s likeable but not too likeable. Was he modeled after you?’ Roen’s a little whiny at first.

“The trilogy follows Tao, the alien, and Roen and his family. I showed my dad everything. I said, ‘Edit this!’ The one thing I lost out on when I didn’t become an English major is that my gram­mar is terrible. I was a technical guy. I never had to write a full sentence! My dad went through sever­al rounds of edits for me. I really appreciated that. Now I realize I’ve gotta pay people to do those things. My wife will divorce me if I make her do another round of editing. She’s like, ‘I work 50-60 hours a week.’ An attorney does a lot of editing anyway. The last thing she wants to do is edit my shit.”

*

Time Salvager is set in the 26th century. Man­kind has colonized the solar system, but we’re slowly running out of resources. They use time travelers called ‘chronmen.’ These travelers go back to what they call ‘dead end’ timelines, to moments before a disaster happens. They grab the resources, power sources, relics, and then they jump back out. The explosion happens, and it cov­ers their tracks. The most important rule is to not affect the timeline. The problem with this job is that these chronmen see and experience the last terrible moments of all those victims, and they can’t do anything about it. Because of this, a lot of them suffer from PTSD, or they’re suicidal, or they’re alcoholics. We follow a chronman named James Griffin-Mars. He’s been doing this work for many years now. On one of his important jobs, he meets a scientist named Elise Kim. In a mo­ment of weakness he pulls her with him back to the present. Because of that, he’s broken the most important time law, and now he’s hunted by the very agency he works for.

Time Salvager came out in July. As I grew the story, I threw in a few more elements that were near and dear to me. A lot of that is environmen­talism. The socialist (I’m really not a socialist) in me comes out a little, writing about corporatism and how it affects modern society. Regardless of time traveling and those things, at the core of the book, it’s a love story. (Tao is a love story too, just in the bromance way.) Russ read Time Salvager and said, ‘I hadn’t figured you out until I read this. You’re a romance writer masquerading as a sci­ence fiction author.’ The relationship is where the magic happens.

Time Salvager was going to be a standalone. I sold it off a partial. I realized about two-thirds of the way through that I wasn’t going to finish the story in one book, so it became a duology. Then I started writing Time Siege, and realized two-thirds of the way through that I still wasn’t going to fin­ish, so now it’s a trilogy. We’ll see what happens. I have a particular story to tell. I have character arcs I want to follow through.”

*

“A lot of authors aren’t aware of their own bi­ases until someone points them out. I wrote The Lives of Tao with a male gaze. I didn’t know any better. Part of it was the character, but all my life I’ve read books with a male gaze. I wrote The Lives of Tao eight years ago. I got dinged for its treatment of women, and I was rightfully dinged for it. I made an effort to be more balanced in the second and third books. I’ve been complimented for that, too. The reader will react the way they want to react. It’s a problem if the author isn’t aware of it: ‘My story’s all dudes! I didn’t real­ize!’ Or if there are two-dimensional women who are just there to be harassed, or to look like su­perheroes in spandex. It’s still the author’s deci­sion. Sometimes we’re too close to the story or not aware of the things we’re doing. I think part of it is natural maturing. I view my characters in a more complex way now. The world they operate in is not the world I lived in during my twenties. The relationships are a lot more complex. I definitely use a lot more women in prominent leadership roles now. The world has changed.”


Kameron Hurley: Your Author Meltdown Will Be Live-Tweeted

While standing in line with my spouse to get onto the Book Expo America (BEA) show floor, we started up a conversation about how eas­ily the plain paper badges could be forged. All you need is a good color copier. As we bantered back and forth, the woman in front of us kept looking at us sideways. The third time she did it I realized that anybody in line could be live-tweeting this conversa­tion, and that it was possible that I’d check my phone in an hour and see a barrage of tweets and a couple blog posts with headlines like, ‘‘Author Kameron Hurley tells readers to forge BEA passes.’’

When I have my name tag on at events like this, I know that every public conversation I have could end up on the public bulletin board that is the Internet and attributed to me. I’ve gotten used to the idea that everything I do on panels and in fan interactions is public, but knowing I was just as vulnerable standing there in line suddenly exhausted me.

You spend your whole life trying to be somebody, and when you’re finally somebody to some people after a couple decades of long, hard work, you find that it’s really not as great as you thought. For me, the perils of my du­bious internet fame haven’t yet come with enough money to make up for everything else.

Over the last couple years, my audience has grown from a few hundred people who actually enjoy reading what I have to say, to tens of thou­sands of causal or one-off readers, some of whom really do hate-read me. I know people who’ve trashed me (me, not the work) on other forums, who still trundle on by the blog or read columns like this to lap up every word so they can rant about how awful it all is. In fact, I realized I’d ‘‘made it’’ the first time I read a full-on rant from somebody I’d never met who went on and on about what a stupid, ignorant, nasty person I was. Not my books, mind you – me personally, the human who shops for groceries and forgets to do laundry. It was the most bizarre thing ever, like watching somebody rip into how much they hate Walmart or The Hobbit movie.

I had become…. a thing. A brand? A business? Not human.

The more people respect what you have to say, the more folks will come out of the woodwork trying to tear you down. Having been one of the people flinging arrows at authors myself (and let’s be real, I still do), I get it, and I accept it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate when you’re sitting in a restaurant and wondering if your dinner conversation will end up in an Instagram video.

In the ten years I’ve been writing online, I’ve mostly been hated as some kind of women’s lib boogeyman, and that’s just funny more than anything. It’s a lot easier for me to dismiss haters when they’re sending me death threats for believing women are people. It’s harder to dismiss people who want me dead because they despise me in general. In the same breath they’ll say I should be garroted to keep me from speaking and Starbucks should stop serving Pumpkin Spice Lattes because, gosh, those lattes are gross.

More and more, ‘‘being a writer’’ isn’t about writing at all. It’s about the writer as celebrity. The writer as brand. The writer as commodity. And more and more, I see authors themselves reviewed as if they’re busi­nesses on Yelp.

A colleague of mine calls the strange entity people are reacting to as the ‘‘authorial construct.’’ People don’t really hate you. They hate this idea of you that they’ve constructed in their heads. You become the em­bodiment of all of their frustrations and failures. You’re also far more accessible than, say, Lady Gaga or the President. They figure they have a better chance of getting to you and shutting you up than they do of get­ting Target to stop selling stuff for babies.

We talk a lot about how rich and famous people deserve public scru­tiny. I never suspected that I’d get a taste of that without the rich or the famous part. Audiences work hard to pull obscure voices like mine from the screaming bowels of the Internet, but once you’re here, once you be­come The Man, you face a whole new wall of pitchforks, and they’re of­ten the people who championed your work in the first place. It does make me wonder sometimes what we’re fighting for.

I know we can always do better, and I do my part to champion new voices, but in among all this doing better there’s also the work it­self, and perhaps that’s the toughest part in this whole equation. Staying on somebody’s hate-read list requires a lot of work that has nothing to do with dinner conversations.

I went into the whirlwind that is BEA know­ing things were going to go wrong, because I’d been working on my fifth book nonstop in the days leading up to the con. I literally sent the book to my editor from the passenger seat of the car halfway to New York. I was two weeks late on my structural edit and extremely stressed out (I still have a full-time day job), and had had no time to wash dishes or do laun­dry, let alone check on vital logistics for the convention (I forgot to bring pen syringes for the medication that keeps me alive, which tells you something about the level of my stress). We went into the con without having secured a badge for my spouse, without confirming that our apartment had air conditioning, without sending my books ahead of time, and without confirming that the public­ity folks at Simon and Schuster had finalized my signing after my panel.

Just arriving at the convention without being thrown out was a huge win. I managed to keep it together until the very, very end, when I ran to go pick up my books from the bookstore booth. Because I had no public­ity champion managing the event for me (which I was used to, but was not usual for other authors at BEA), there was nobody to tell them to put out my books, even though I’d labeled the boxes with my signing times and inventory counts. What this meant was that I pretty much had exactly the same number of books to haul out as I hauled in.

I felt stupid. Who the hell was I, thinking I was a real professional author?

I kept going over ways I should have managed it better, and as I spoke to the bookstore rep in the back, she apologized again for all the misun­derstandings, and I said that no, no, these things happen, it’s not a big deal and she said I’m sorry it happened to you and I was like, well it has to happen to someone and she said no, I’m sorry it happened to you because you’re all by yourself.

The reality is I’m not a big brand. I’m just a human, working my tail off to do the best I can.

That’s when I lost it. I turned away so she couldn’t see my face and wheeled the books out, and cried my way to the car across the parking lot in the driving rain of a massive thunderstorm, ruining $400 worth of books because they wouldn’t let us drive the car up to the convention doors. Her words reminded me of how I’d gotten used to doing so much myself because of the totally messed up business practices of my first publisher, and I had no idea how to function at massive ‘‘real author’’ events like this where everyone seemed to have publicists and editors and handlers managing their books and lines and calendars.

I kept myself buttoned up right up until that last day, because the real­ity is that if I’m angry at some stupid mix-up, it’s possible that annoyance will happen in front of fans, or effect a signing, or bleed into a public ap­pearance, or become some pretentious rant on Twitter, and then I become that jerk author.

I ruin the business. Whatever that is.

What you never get about being an author until you become one is that it’s not a glamorous life. It’s not typing words on a keyboard on the beach. You’re a small business, and you will be rated on your total overall perfor­mance like a restaurant on Urbanspoon.

In our hearts, we sell dreams and hope for a fu­ture that could be. Ursula K. Le Guin can rail on about how books shouldn’t be treated like widgets, and authors shouldn’t be rated like restaurants, but the reality is that this is the business environment we’re working in. This is how we’re making our living, one McBook at a time.


Max Gladstone: Power & Destiny

Max Walker Gladstone was born May 28, 1984 in Concord MA, and grew up mostly in Ohio and Tennessee. He graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese. He has been to China several times, and lived there from 2006-8 as a Yale-China Fellow, teaching in a rural school.

Debut novel Three Parts Dead (2012) began the Craft sequence, ‘‘tales of wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees,’’ which continues in Two Serpents Rise (2013), Full Fathom Five (2014), and Last First Snow, forthcoming July 2015. Gladstone was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best new writer in 2013 and 2014. He also writes games, notably interactive fiction Choice of the Deathless, and has a Pathfinder Tales RPG tie-in novel forthcoming in 2016.

Gladstone lives in Somerville MA with his wife, Stephanie Neely.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The idea that led to me writing Three Parts Dead was a Big Idea. It was really an interpretive lens I created to write about issues in the world economy. I came back from China in 2008. I was looking for work at the same time the whole economy tripped and stumbled into a wood chip­per. I was impressed by the terror that reverberated through the markets, the fear you could see in news anchors’ eyes and hear in the voices of the guests they brought on to explain what had happened – to the extent that anyone could describe what hap­pened – and the religious dimensions of it. Hun­dreds of billions of dollars of damage, trillions. The world teetering… but nothing had happened on a physical level. There was no smoking crater that was AIG. ‘This once was the castle of my father’ – there was none of that. The economic crisis was a cataclysm on a spiritual level that nevertheless had real physical effects on human beings. It was like gods dying. Like Ragnarok, or Gotterdammerung at least. We were witnessing the twilight of a cer­tain set of gods and monsters, which then devoured their own entrails and gave birth to another set of god/monsters, which is what always happens with gods. Money, and law, and the change of world systems were easy for me to model in the context of fantasy. I could talk about this stuff with magic: in fact, it was easiest to talk about it with magic.

‘‘Those experiences dovetailed with things my wife talked about (she was in law school at the time) and things her mother talked about (she’s a bankruptcy lawyer), about the way bankruptcy law works. Growing up in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, I thought bankruptcy was, ‘Well, we have no money anymore, so we’re just going to fire everybody and sell our stuff and try to pay everyone back.’ The notion that the bankrupt en­tity could be rescued, in some horribly invasive way, didn’t occur to me. Bailing out a corpora­tion – a notional fictional entity – seemed a lot like taking a real dead person, putting them on a slab, surrounding them with certain protections and guards, consulting with others who have an interest in the dead entity, taking the parts that were left, wiring them all together with silver and cold iron, hooking the body up to a lightning rod, and telling Igor to crank away. All of a sudden, the corpse of Delta Airlines rises from the table, groaning: ‘Flights will come.’

‘‘I realized how much my wife’s law school classes sounded like things you’d study at Hog­warts. Most of the time when you go to gradu­ate school the courses are ‘Advanced Theories’ and ‘Topics in Confrontational Microbiology’ or something. In law school, you find titles like ‘Remedies,’ and ‘Contracts,’ and ‘Corps.’ Cor­porations gets called ‘corps,’ pronounced like ‘corpse,’ as in, ‘I have to go to my corps class.’ I had this post-industrial fantasy world taking shape in my head, as a dark mirror of everything going on around me and in the world economy. With Three Parts Dead I sat down to write a story that was a little contained, because I couldn’t tackle the global catastrophe entirely. I could cover the aftermath, a contained version of it, which is very much what’s going on in Three Parts Dead: the god of the city has died. It’s more like the last few years of Detroit than the financial catastrophe of 2008.

“…The philosopher Feuerbach had this idea that God is a projection of human potential. Humans have a natural tendency to create something better than us, or stronger than us, or older than us by induction, so gods emerge as a network effect in human communities, from the way people talk about themselves. You create something like that, and it can’t help but be real in the sense that it shapes the way people live, and it shapes their vision of possibility. I’m always in conversation with these questions of power and destiny and possibilities.”

*

‘‘There’s an illusion that there’s such a thing as pure ‘literary fiction.’ I say that in the larg­est quotes possible because I don’t think it cor­responds with literature about the real world. We have stories about middle-class, comfortable people problems, and we tell ourselves that’s what the world is. That’s the circle of firelight. That’s the tiny little raft. There are oceans and oceans beneath it.

‘‘I wanted to write individual books. Terry Pratchett was an enormous influence on me grow­ing up. Any given Terry Pratchett book, you could pick it up and read it easily, assuming you have a little of that skill people acquire in genre fiction of dropping into a world and orienting yourself. You could pick up any book in the Discworld series, anything off the shelf, and know where you were in about 40 pages. By the end of that book you would have a complete story told to you. There would be more aspects of these people and this world that you could continue to explore, but it wasn’t necessary. That was amazing. That ap­proach felt very satisfying to me as an alterna­tive to the ‘seven doorstoppers and no ending in sight’ approach, which has its own advantages, of course. Still, I felt very strongly about wanting to write complete stories in each book.”

*

‘‘The stories that influenced me were stories we would consider genre. You try to tell anything like Journey to the West in terms of its block­ing or structure, and it’s automatically genre. At the same time, I was growing up with SF. When my uncle Danny found out I was interested in Star Trek, he showed up with a cardboard box full of Ace paperbacks and a little Post-It note listing ev­ery book that had won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards up to that point. He said, ‘Read these first. Start with these Asimovs here because you’ll need them to understand what else is going on.’ That was my introduction to genre. It was amazing. I read Foundation. I found Roger Zelazny and read Lord of Light for the first time when I was ten, and didn’t understand it at all. Then I read it when I was 11 and understood a little. I grew up with that book, though. When I was 14 I realized how funny it was, on the first page even, with Yama messing with the dials on the prayer machine and invok­ing the local fertility gods by their most prominent aspect – I laughed so hard when I figured out what that actually meant. I realized how much humor was in the text, just slightly submerged.”


Joanne Harris: Modern Myths

Joanne Michéle Sylvie Harris was born July 3, 1964 in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England, though she also spent time with family in France, and spoke French before English. She studied modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, and worked briefly as an accountant before taking teacher training at Sheffield University, after which she spent 15 years as a schoolteacher. She also lectured at Sheffield University on French literature and film.

Harris is a bestselling literary author who often incorporates the fantastic into her work, to greater or lesser degrees. Her first novel was The Evil Seed (1989), followed by Sleep, Pale Sister (1993), but she achieved her first great success with magical-realist novel Chocolat (1999), adapted as an acclaimed film the following year. After that she became a full-time writer, producing novels Blackberry Wine (2000), Five Quarters of the Orange (2001), Coastliners (2002), Holy Fools (2003), Gentlemen & Players (2005), The French Market (2005), The Lollipop Shoes (2007; in the US as The Girl With No Shadow, 2008), Blueeyedboy (2010), Peaches for Monsieur le Curé (2012; in the US as Peaches for Father Francis). She began a Norse myth-inspired fantasy series with Runemarks (2007) and continued it in Runelight (2011). Her latest book is standalone fantasy The Gospel of Loki (2014), as by Joanne M. Harris.

Harris is also a respected short story author, and some of her shorter work has been collected in Jigs & Reels (2004) and A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String (2012). She co-wrote two books on French cooking with Fran Warde.

Many of her works have won or been finalists for prestigious literature awards, and she has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize (now the Costa) and the Orange Prize. She is an honorary Fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Hudderfield and the University of Sheffield. She was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2013. Harris lives in Yorkshire with her husband and their daughter.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘It’s taken me a long time to understand why genre labels are even necessary. I’ve never felt any of them applied to me entirely. A lot of my publishers have found it hard to quantify what I do. I don’t think of myself as having a label attached. I’m sure the labels are useful to some people, but I read so many things and I write in so many different areas that to me, if it’s a good story, it’s a good story.

‘‘When you look at what I’ve done before, I’ve never been far from the fantasy area. I’ve been talking about magic for 15 years. I’ve written two other books about Norse gods besides The Gospel of Loki. It’s not new to me. Mythology is something I’ve been interested in since I was itty bitty, and Norse mythology particularly. I’m from Yorkshire, which has an awful lot of Norse culture embedded in it. It’s there in the language, in the names, in the geography and the landscape, and in the literature, too. It’s very familiar. It’s neither exotic nor far from home. I was drawn to Norse mythology as a child because it seemed so very familiar, whereas the Romans and the Greeks seemed quite distant by comparison. York­shire slang is full of Danish words and Icelandic words. Words that are very clearly from Norse languages. My grandmother’s maiden name was Briggs, which means ‘bridge’ in old Norse. I live spitting distance from York, which was a big Viking settlement. You just scratch the ground and you’ll find some sort of artifact. There’s an excavation called Jorvik, which is the Viking for York, and it’s now a big tourist visitors centre. I remember it when it was a hole in the ground. When I was 16 I worked on the dig. It was an archaeological site that was supposed to be open for only six months, and then something was going to be built on it. People were trying to get as much as they could of historical interest out of the ground. I volunteered to work on it because even at 16 I was obsessed with Norse culture. I was in on that, which was probably the most impor­tant archaeological Viking site in the country. I found loads of things. It was mostly a rubbish tip. We didn’t find anything really valuable, but we found an awful lot of bones and oyster shells and bits of crockery. Where I live, my house is two miles from an Iron Age fort. It’s basically a hill with some earthworks. You can see how various tribes of Celts and later Norse settlers came together and moved around. It was all happening in Yorkshire.”

*

‘‘I don’t tend to work on just one thing at once. I will segue from one to another when it becomes necessary. Sometimes I need some thinking time or some resting time or some researching time. I will generally jump to a different project. Some­times it’s a very different project. Sometimes I need to jump from one headspace into another. Short stories go rather slowly. I might average four a year. Last year I only did one because it was a Doctor Who book and it was a bit longer. It was a novella. They wanted a short e-book and they wanted to put it in a collection called Time Trips. They took a number of authors who’d been Doctor Who fans during childhood and adolescence and asked them their take on any doctor they chose. I chose the third doctor because that was the one I remembered best as a child. I remembered the sec­ond doctor, but I think it’s the one you remember when you’re about six or seven that’s the formative doctor. It was in my case, anyway. I wrote a story called ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Time Traveller’. Which slots in nicely right at the end of ‘Planet of the Spiders’, where that doctor dies, or at least is grievously poisoned by radiation and comes to Earth to regenerate. There’s a little point where there’s a suggestion that something else may have happened. He disappears for two weeks. He says he was lost in the time vortex. I popped my story in there. It’s a kind of contemplative story about coming to terms with death. One’s own, but also the death of humans, which is slightly differ­ent from the Doctor. It was an interesting one to do – I had a lot of fun – but it was daunting because the Doctor Who fanbase is an extremely vocal one and they know a lot. I was worried that if I got something wrong people would point it out. They were actually very nice indeed.”

*

‘‘I’ve been very lucky. I’ve visited so many won­derful places. I love visiting New Zealand and I love visiting Australia. I very rarely get to do any sightseeing. If I’m in a place for two weeks I might get a day off, but I’m very good at using whatever time is available. I love coming to the states be­cause everywhere is so different. Every city has its own personality, and every state is like a dif­ferent country. I’ve enjoyed going to Russia very much. It’s a very interesting country and the fans are extremely passionate. I’ve written travel pieces as well where they’ve sent me to wild and marvel­ous places that I wouldn’t have otherwise been to. Who’d have known that stories would send you so far?”

*

‘‘I don’t generally talk much about forthcom­ing things because it depends on how long it takes them to come forth. People get impatient. At the moment I’m working on a sort of fantasy novel. It’s a collection of stories with an overarching story running through it. It’s called Honeycomb. People who follow me on Twitter will be familiar with some of the stories because I write them on Twit­ter. When I joined Twitter about three years ago I didn’t quite know what to say and so I started writ­ing stories sentence by sentence. People started to tune in and listen and now they request story time. I realized after a few years I had quite a large archive of stories, some of them with returning characters. Initially I hadn’t saved these stories. I just left them out there. I thought, ‘Twitter is ephemeral. These stories that I’m making up on the spot should also be ephemeral.’ People started to say, ‘You ought to keep them, and if you don’t, then I will.’ People storified them and sent me the text. I started to keep them after that, and go back and pick them up. I’d published a few of them in various magazines. I published one in Fairy Magazine, which Charles Vess illustrated for me. He’s a wonderful illustra­tor. I got another one in a couple of anthologies. So I started to plan them as a book. In fact I’ve got Charles to illustrate it, which is a wonderful coup. I’ve put some of them to music. I’ve been doing musical story-tellings in front of audiences, which is interesting. One of them made it as a sort of mini opera. I’ve been in a band for a long time. Because I’m slightly obsessed with this oral tradition of story, I thought, instead of doing readings the way I always do at festivals, wouldn’t it be nice to ex­perience another means of telling stories? I bring my band and tell stories to music, and there’ll be some songs based on stories. I play flute and bass and sometimes I sing. We all do things together. That was lots of fun. These stories that don’t quite want to stay on the page, eventually I’m going to put them in a book. I’m halfway through trying to give it a book structure. That may take a little time to put together, but I think it’ll be a pretty book.”


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.’’



© 2010-2014 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress, modified from a theme design by Lorem Ipsum