Sofia Samatar is recently the author of A Stranger in Olondria, a warm and vivid debut fantasy novel just out from the fine folk at Small Beer Press. Locus has called Olondria “the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer”. We’re thrilled to have her with us. This interview was conducted by Erin Hoffman via email.
Ideomancer: Congratulations on the release of your debut, which so far is gathering wide acclaim! How do you feel having it complete and out in the world?
Sofia Samatar: So far, so good! I love getting feedback from readers. It’s heartening to feel I’ve written something that speaks to people, and to see reviews that really engage with my material coming from people like Gary K. Wolfe, Amal El-Mohtar, Nisi Shawl, and Craig Laurance Gidney.
I: How did your book come to be published by Small Beer, and how have you liked working with them?
SS: I have to answer the second part first because I love working with them! I love it so much. Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link do so much for the sf/f community, their books are beautiful, and they’ve been a dream to work with every step of the way, from edits to cover art to promotion. I’m honored to have a Small Beer book. I also need to take a moment for a shout-out to my cover artist, Kathleen Jennings, who is awesome.
How did it happen? Well, I hope Gavin doesn’t wind up hating me for saying this, but what happened is that I went to WisCon, walked up to the Small Beer table in the dealer’s room, bought some books, introduced myself, and said: “So I’ve written this novel…” He said, “Hmm, okay, send me three chapters.” And then it was “Send us the whole manuscript,” and then it was “We want to publish it.” Please, anyone who plans to corner Gavin at a con — at least buy some books!
I: They should buy books indeed. What inspired you to write the novel, and what was the writing of it like? Did anything surprise you?
SS: That’s an interesting question, because I spent so long working on the book. It took me two years to write the first draft, and another decade, on and off, to revise. So different things inspired me at different points along the way. First I was inspired by worldbuilding, especially inventing languages, and creating a place where everyone looked something like me. Then I was inspired by the idea of angels and ghosts being the same thing: beauty and terror in one. Then it was travel and exile. Then it was the struggle between oral and written forms of knowledge. Then it was imperialism. Not necessarily in that order, but you know, those are some of the things that came out as I was working.
It surprised me at one point to discover I’d written a book that is quite political. I didn’t intend to do that when I started — I just wanted to have a good time with maps and ghosts and things. It was meant to be a totally self-indulgent project. I suppose when I started I didn’t believe politics and self-indulgence could go together, and then later I realized that in some ways they have to, because your politics involves what you believe about yourself and what you think is best for the world. So to find I’d written a book addressing the suppression of oral cultures by literate ones was surprising, and then not, if that makes sense!
I: These things tend to emerge in fascinating ways. Books and the effect of literacy are also obviously very important. What do you think about the appearance of that suppression, how it fits into the rest of the emergent politics, and what does it mean that the oppression comes from Olondria?
SS: The oppression comes from Olondria because Olondria is an empire. Like any empire, it’s built on conquered peoples. Olondria is a beautiful place in many ways — Jevick, the main character, loves it, and I would love to visit it myself, but there’s no escaping the fact that its history is bloody. What’s happening in the book is that those in power are trying to strengthen their hold on Olondria, and that means stamping out old gods and old forms of expression. Literacy is being pushed in order to stifle oral culture. And there’s money involved, of course. It’s a struggle for both resources and cultural dominance.
I: I was going to ask about your worldbuilding, because it is subtle and lovely, very un-pretentious and yet completely vivid. What worlds inspired you, and how did you decide to emphasize books and trading?
SS: The biggest worldbuilding influence is probably Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy — his world is so richly developed, almost too much, a little out of control, and he just doesn’t care, he keeps on adding stuff, more descriptions, more weird nooks and crannies. It’s never too much for him. I love that.
Books and trading — books because they’re central to the story, and trading because, well, I’m really not sure. I had visited a tea farm in Kenya around the time I started writing. And I had read Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s gorgeous memoir, in which there are tropical farms. I feel like these things were floating around in my head, and by the time I put pen to paper, my main character lived on a pepper farm.
I: Was there anything that emerged through the writing that you explicitly didn’t like, or revealed thought processes you didn’t realize you’d internalized and were coming through in the fiction?
SS: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there was necessarily anything I didn’t like, but there were difficult things — things I can’t really discuss without spoilers! There are omissions, I feel — unanswered questions about what life is like for Olondrian women, for example. That one gets tackled in the sequel!
I: Do you have a favorite moment or character from the book (that isn’t a spoiler )?
SS: I love the moment when Jevick learns to read. He just throws himself into books and lives there — which is very much the way I read myself. And I love his tutor, Lunre, who has left his own country forever. Lunre is a very melancholy character, and also a person of great integrity who is starting his life over from scratch.
I: Your passion for that moment comes through. If we may quote:
I, too, soon after I read my first book, Nardien’s Tales for the Tender, succumbed to the magic voices that called to me from their houses of vellum. It was a great wonder to me to come so close to these foreign spirits, to see with the eyes and hear with the ears of those I had never known, to communicate with the dead, to feel that I knew them intimately, and that they knew me more completely than any person I knew in the flesh.
– A Stranger in Olondria, ch. 3
I: There’s a lot of love evident in Lunre, too. The dynamic between him and Jevick’s father is fascinating. There’s something going on there about the way one generation wants to overcome the other, but there being tension between the two — I get the impression that on the one hand Jevick’s father wants him to become great, but not too great, if that makes sense. Would you agree, or how would you describe the dynamic between them, and the way Jevick’s father strains between the past and the future, his own world and the world outside?
SS: I think you’ve just described the dynamic really well. Jevick’s father wants Jevick to have what he never did — access to a foreign language and culture. But then he realizes — too late — that learning these things is going to make his son a different person, someone the father can’t understand anymore. I wouldn’t say Jevick’s father is a particularly sympathetic character, but I do sympathize with his problem. He thinks a foreign language can act as a simple tool, specifically as a tool for making money. He doesn’t realize what learning a language does. It changes you.
I: Who, or what, inspires you?
SS: Books and more books. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mervyn Peake, Michael Ondaatje, Carole Maso, Miral al-Tahawy, Claudia Rankine, and the list goes on.
I: Favorite titles from any or each of those that come to mind?
SS: Oh, wow. In order: The Lord of the Rings; The Tombs of Atuan; Gormenghast (the middle one); The English Patient; AVA; The Tent; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
I: What brought you to fantasy, and how long have you been writing it?
SS: I’ve loved fantasy as long as I can remember — even when I could only read picture books, I wanted some kind of departure from realism, like “Bread and Jam for Frances” was cool because Frances was a badger. I’ve also almost always written fantasy. I had a brief period in high school where I got disgusted with the genre and thought it was horrible because I’d exhausted the local Waldenbooks and library, and I thought that was all there was. So then I had a realist phase. I wrote a Hemingwayesque novel about a pair of card sharps. AWFUL.
I: The awful always seems a necessary step toward the not-awful. How, if at all, has your family background influenced your work?
SS: Oh, quite a lot, I think. My dad is from Somalia, and my mom is a Swiss-German Mennonite from North Dakota. This makes me interested in African and African diasporic experiences, mixed identities, marginalized communities, religion, deserts, oral poetry, and hymns — to name just a few things!
I: Your debut is about an outsider – what draws you to outsiders, and was the choice deliberate?
SS: See the above answer! I’ve spent my life having people ask me about my ethnic background, usually very shortly after meeting me. This doesn’t exactly bother me — I get that people want to know, and it can be a way of making connections — but it’s a reminder that I’m different, that I can’t automatically be received as a “in-group” person. And then when I explain my background, I often get a reaction like “WHO? WHAT? HOW?!?” And that does bother me, because what it means is: “No way! You did not just exist! You are impossible!” It used to really frustrate me when I was younger. Now it’s easier to take it in stride, partly because I’ve learned there are actually tons of people like me. I don’t mean tons of people with my exact background, but when you consider all the mixed people in the world, all the children of immigrants, and then people with different types of nonconforming identities, queer identities, etc. — there’s a lot of support. It feels good.
I: Wow. Yes, you could say hybrids are on the rise. Do you think that there’s still pressure for you to identify with one background or the other, and how do you think this comes across in your fiction?
SS: Well, yes: people find it much easier to see me as Somali or African-American than Mennonite. They also want to see me as Arab and Muslim, because I study Arabic literature! I’ve treated this stuff in my fiction in some ways, especially in my story “A Brief History of Nonduality Studies,” and in the sequel to Olondria I’m working on now. “Brief History” is in part a call to dissolve false borders, especially the ones between north and sub-Saharan Africa, but really borders of all kinds. And in the Olondria sequel I deal pretty directly with mixed race issues.
I: Exciting. Since words, names, and books have such importance in Olondria, I have to wonder: do you think the dynamic you describe above would differ if you’d inherited a surname from your mother rather than your father? Names have such odd power.
SS: I think it would be different — at least for people reading my name, without meeting me. But things tend to change when you get to know a person. Whatever associations you’ve attached to their name have to shift to make room for that person’s actual history. Names have power, but they can also develop new meanings.
I: You have a lovely poem in this issue of Ideomancer. How do you choose whether an idea becomes a poem or part of a larger piece?
SS: Thank you! About form: I usually don’t have to decide. The piece decides for me. It comes like that. It’s funny, but the one piece I remember not being that way is my Ideomancer story, “The Nazir,” which started out as a novel.
I: I well remember that story! It had a world-vividness that is novel-like. The natural question follows: what’s next for you?
SS: Revising the sequel to Olondria! A task by turns delightful and horrid!
I: That it is. Best of luck with it! Any closing thoughts?
SS: Thank you for the conversation, and thanks to the Ideomancer staff for their interest in my work and for keeping this space alive with stories!
We’d like to thank Sofia for joining us for this interview, and for contributing her fine poem to this issue. You can read more about A Stranger in Olondria at the Small Beer website, read an excerpt at Tor.com, and order the book from your local indie bookstore.
David Rees-Thomas: You’ve been a fixture of the spec poetry world for a number of years. What first drew you to writing speculative poetry?
Mari Ness: I’m flattered, but I don’t know that I can call myself a fixture of the spec poetry world – more a will-a-wisp, if anything.
My first attempt was back when I was a small little poet of seven, the triumphant author of a terrible little poem about a clown, and an even worse little three line poem about a heart that I spent a horrible three days struggling over until a teacher kindly informed me that poems didn’t actually have to rhyme, showing me e.e. cummings for encouragement.
That same teacher also suggested that it might be easier to write a poem about something that I was interested in, unlike, at the time, hearts. So, on the dubious strength of those first poems and that advice, when I was challenged to write something for Halloween, I wrote about a witch on a vacuum cleaner. It’s safe to say nobody liked this at all – partly because it wasn’t my original idea, mostly because, as I was loftily informed by my small friends, “witch” doesn’t rhyme with “vacuum cleaner.” I quickly put the witch in a ditch. Nobody liked this either (“Witches FLY,” I was told) but I learned my lesson: it’s easier to find rhymes for things that interest you.
It was years before I tried to write any poems again – these first experiences were not encouraging – but by then, I was quite fond of dragons.
It probably also helped that my first exposure to poetry was to poetry of the fantastic or revelatory: Dr. Seuss, hymns, Lewis Carroll, the psalms, and so forth.
DR: Over the years what changes have you seen in the speculative poetry field? Has the advent of extensive web publishing played an important part in these changes?
MN: The main and most critical change is that now you can easily find poetry that speaks of dragons.
That was not true in my pre-internet high school days. I could find poetry, certainly, but this was rather carefully selected to represent the more realistic strands of poetry, and even then, not much was available in either the high school or town library. College threw more stuff at me, but, again, mostly realistic, except where the unrealistic fantastical stuff slid by under the name of an approved poet. I read the great poets – or, I should specify, the poets accepted as great by the Norton Anthologies, which is not quite the same thing, and looked at the poetry journals. But the journals I could find at the college library and at bookstores all focused on “literary,” “mainstream” work.
Poet’s Market assured me that journals accepting fantastical poetry did exist, but outside of Dragon Magazine, the occasional issue of Asimov’s (which was also not widely available) and Tolkien, I couldn’t find any fantastical poetry post Yeats.
This is not to say fantastical poetry wasn’t being written, just that if you weren’t at the right bookstores or the right conventions, you were unlikely to hear about it or have a chance to read it, even if, like me, you wanted to.
When the internet started up, websites focusing on fantastical and speculative poetry were few and far between – but, in a refreshing change, at least they were there. Literary speculative poetry took a little longer to arrive, more or less creeping in here and there, but now we have several zines publishing speculative and fantastic poetry on a semi-regular basis.
A second change is that it’s also easier to find examples of different poetic forms, especially in structured poetry, which in turn opens up all kinds of new worlds. Before the internet, I certainly knew about sonnets, and I had been accidentally introduced to the rondeau, sestina, haiku and villanelle, but on the internet, I found far more: terzanelles, triolets, ghazals, rondeaus, cinquains, pantoums, septolets…Admittedly, I’m far too fond of this sort of thing and far too apt to waste time playing with forms like this, but on the other hand, playing with forms is one way to improve control and mastery of words.
A third change is the increased ability to interact with readers. Poets could do this at poetry readings, of course, but outside of colleges and urban centers these were fairly well – even my own, medium sized university, with a creative writing program, only managed to scare up about two poetry readings in the three years I was there, and one of those was actually a reading of medieval texts, with mead and popcorn. (I suppose you had to be there.) These days I get emails or comments on my blog a few hours after a poem goes up, allowing me to sense how that poem worked (or in some cases, didn’t work.) And of course silence is its own response.
Naturally all of this abundance has its downside. Poetry in English never paid anyone other than Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lord Byron well at the best of times, but now it’s gone from paying badly to paying only token or nothing at all. And the amount of utterly dreadful poetry has also increased. But we had dreadful poetry before the internet, so I’m not sure how much that’s changed.
DR: The very existence of spec poetry as a separate category of poetry is a somewhat controversial subject in certain circles and has some very vocal critics. What sets speculative poetry apart from mainstream poetry? What makes it unique?
I know we, as humans, have a tendency to want to categorize everything – animals, plants, types of apples, bacteria, and so on, even when life is telling us no, no, we can’t be categorized that way. The more we study and research, for instance, the more we realize how much the species model – the assumption that every lifeform can be assigned to some species on the basis of a few specific guidelines – simply doesn’t work in the real world, and yet, we continue to categorize and name species. We simply can’t seem to help it.
The same thing happens in poetry and fiction. I find it less annoying in fiction, since it can help to guide readers in bookstores and libraries.
Poetry, however, should be, and is, more difficult to categorize. After all, the oldest poetry still extant (which may not be the oldest poetry ever written, let alone created, since so many words have been lost to time) fit the category of what we would now call speculative, since that type of poetry was supposed to explore the extraordinary, the divine, the inexplicable. To describe visions; to praise a divine being that could only be felt or imagined, not seen. To sing of ecstasy and visions.
And sometimes, yes, to explore very well known things – war, love, childhood, parenthood – in an extraordinary context: gods shifting the tides of battles and striking people down with plagues. The flush of love explained as the touch of god or gods. Raising the ordinary to the extraordinary, or blurring the line between reality and unreality.
At some point, poetry learned to explore the ordinary as well, and celebrate the ordinary as ordinary, and I love this. I don’t want my poetry limited to knights and dragons, gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters. I want poetry that also sings of plums, or cheerily tells the tale of a woman who buried five husbands and still thinks enough of love and marriage to look for the sixth. And of course poetry has always told jokes, and I love this as well – it would be a dull world indeed if we only had serious, ecstatic poetry. The world needs limericks.
But what I’m trying to say here, in a rather long winded way, is that speculative poetry is and has always been part of the “mainstream” world of poetry as well, no matter how many critics may wish to forget this. And sometimes, opening to the fantastic can produce some of a writer’s best work. And that flash of inspiration that starts any poem – that’s mystical, right? Fantastic? The thought that the atoms comprising your brain are able to set off just the right amount of electrical charges to swirl words about and create something that will, in turn set off another set of atoms in another part of this world whirling and swirling? Also utterly fantastic and fabulous and completely unbelievable when you think about it. So instead, feel it. In a poem.
And if you are writing of the unreal, the impossible, the only imagined, well, perhaps a better name for that is “dragon poetry.”
I should note that I write poetry of both types, and poems that straddle both. I originally conceived of and categorized “Grandma and the Puka,” for example, as more of a mainstream poem, despite the semi-presence of a trickster figure. Because sometimes fairies and tricksters and magic just slip into things. You just have to watch for them.
DR: You also write short stories and flash fiction. Do these hold a different fascination for you in theme and approach?
MN: I rarely sit down to write either a flash fiction story or a short story – I just hear a sentence in my head and then I decide to see where that sentence goes. Most of my flash fiction, by nature, is written fairly swiftly, around a single narrative concept. Short stories require a bit more plotting and planning, a bit more of figuring out where we are going.
My poems are considerably less spontaneous, and typically for me are more like word puzzles – how can I get this image, this sound, correct?
DR: I particularly enjoyed the poem, “Blood and Scales” (The Harrow, Feb (2009), and “Grandma and the Puka” in this issue of Ideomancer. Is there one you would choose as a favorite and why?
MN: It’s hard for me to think of a particular poem that I’ve found particularly fulfilling, but if I had to, I’d mention “Snowmelt,” in the Winter 2011 issue of Goblin Fruit, which was a rather complex chain poem to put together, and my novella-in-poetry, which I hope to see in print at some point.
DR: What lies ahead for you as a poet and a writer? Any plans to tackle novels?
MN: I have no idea what lies ahead. That’s part of the wonder of working in this field.
John Joseph Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in addition to being the editor for the post-apocalyptic anthology, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse published by Night Shade Books, with two other anthologies, Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer of 2008) and The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, Fall of 2008) soon to appear in print.
He writes genre essays, book reviews, and interviews for a variety of magazines, including Kirkus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Locus Magazine, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Publishers Weekly, and Science Fiction Weekly. He also reports for Sci Fi Wire.
Rumor has it he walks on water while juggling it all. Remember, you heard that here first.
Sean Melican: Why did you choose post-apocalyptic fiction as opposed to another sub-genre?
John Joseph Adams: I’ve been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction for a long time, though curiously my fondness for the sub-genre was developed from video games, not literature, at least not initially. My first exposure to it was a computer role-playing game called… Wasteland. (If your next question was going to be “Where did the title come from?” well, then I guess that answers that.) Several years later, I got hooked on another RPG called Fallout (and then Fallout 2), which was one of the best games I’ve ever played.
So I’ve been a big fan of that sub-genre ever since, and I once wrote an article-an extensive bibliography of post-apocalyptic fiction—so I’d already done tons of research on the subject.
During my research, I noted that there was a distinct lack of anthologies of post-apocalyptic fiction. There was only one original—After the Fall edited by Robert Sheckley, which was a humorous look at the genre—and one major reprint anthology—Beyond Armageddon, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Walter M. Miller, Jr. Beyond Armageddon collected the best post-apocalyptic fiction published through 1984; I put Wastelands together as a spiritual sequel to Beyond Armageddon—I basically picked up where it left off. As I fine-tuned the table of contents, I added a few stories that came before 1984—things I felt may have been overlooked—but for the most part, Wastelands includes stories published after Beyond Armageddon was released. I also purposely refrained from reprinting anything in Wastelands that already had been reprinted in Beyond Armageddon; it was recently reissued by Bison Books, so it’s readily available, and I didn’t see the need to reprint “A Boy and His Dog” yet again, even if it is a great story. If I’d had a bigger book to work with, maybe I would have picked what I thought was the best of those older stories and included them too, but I was more interested in seeing what had come after, and how the sub-genre had evolved in the meantime.
SM: Of the authors on the front cover of Wastelands, Gene Wolfe stands out, as he is, as far as I know, not a household name within the genre. Or has that changed?
JJA: I would have thought he is a household name within the genre. He’s probably not quite as popular as the other authors on the cover, but he’s about as critically-acclaimed as you can get, and he’s won a slew of awards—both peer awards and fan awards. I don’t know if his name on the cover drives sales or not (I didn’t choose which names went on the cover). I assume that his name on the cover is a boon. It would be for me, as a reader. Michael Swanwick once said “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today.” Whether you agree or not, anyone who gets praised like that obviously is something of a draw.
But if Gene Wolfe isn’t a household name, not even within the genre, there’s something seriously wrong with the world. I mean, my god—The Book of the New Sun alone is brilliant enough to make him a legend, but on top of that he’s got scads of other similarly brilliant works.
SM: Do you have other particular favorite sub-genres or styles?
JJA: Remember that bibliography of post-apocalyptic fiction I mentioned earlier? Well, I wrote two other ones as well: one on dinosaur SF, and one on Mars SF, so those are two favorite genres as well. I’d think about doing an anthology on one of those subjects, except each has several anthologies devoted to it already.
On my blog, I once posted a meme about the sort of tropes I like to see in stories, and I came up with the following: skyhooks/space elevators, dinosaurs, post-apocalyptic wastelands, super-smart animals (intelligence-boosted/evolved/uplifted chimps, gorillas, kangaroos, dogs, mice, etc.), and near future explorations of our solar system. So all of those topics are of particular interest, but I read widely and like lots of different sorts of things. Which comes in handy when it comes to thinking of anthology ideas—part of the fun of putting together a reprint anthology is hunting down all the stories on the theme, and discovering stories I hadn’t come across yet.
SM: How did you come to be a speculative fiction fan? What are your first memories of science fiction stories or films?
JJA: Growing up, I’d always been a reader. Not the hardcore reader you might expect, but I always was in the middle of something. The very first speculative fiction I can remember reading was probably A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid, unless you count those Beverly Cleary Ralph S. Mouse books.
I never truly identified as a SF reader until much later in life, though. The trouble was, I liked genre stuff, but I never went to bookstores and picked out my own books. I always had books given to me, mostly by my sister. At some point she started working at a B. Dalton bookstore, and so she continued to supply me with books. Because of her I read all the Piers Anthony Xanth books, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books, the Robert Aspirin Myth novels…. I read other stuff too, of course, but that’s the stuff that stands out in my memory.
It wasn’t until I was 18 or so that I seriously started reading SF, and discovered that that was the section in the bookstore where the stuff I really wanted to read was. Although I was a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, and lots of other media SF, for some reason I thought that print SF would be too hard for me to understand—I had the mistaken perception that it would be like reading a technical manual for technology that doesn’t exist (yet). So I kind of started off with Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins, and after cutting my teeth on those, moved onto bigger and better things.
Around the same time, I’d been reading a lot of medical thrillers, for which my sister is also to blame—she’d given me a Robin Cook novel called Blindsight, and I became fascinated with that genre and read all I could. That led me to try Michael Crichton, and at the time I loved him, and he suddenly became my favorite author. I still remember several of his novels fondly, though I don’t know how well they’d hold up to my scrutiny now. (I’ve tried some of his newer novels and didn’t like them much at all.) But anyway, after I read through Crichton’s backlist my sister’s then-husband suggested I try some real SF, pointing out that if I could follow the science in Jurassic Park, I could follow anything in an SF novel, which was true enough. And Crichton is responsible for teaching me to read in marathon sessions and to read a paperback without creasing the spine. Well, not responsible exactly, but it was with his books that I learned to do those things. The first book I ever read in one marathon session was A Case of Need, a—you guessed it—medical thriller written by Crichton, originally under a pseudonym. (I would later make myself proud by once reading three books in one day, though I would point out that I didn’t get a lot else done, and one of the books was very short, 170 pages or so, with large type—the other two were legit, though, I’m sure.)
I’m pretty sure the first real SF novel I read in what I think of as my modern era of reading was Mars by Ben Bova, and the reason that was the first is an odd one, but makes sense in light of what I’ve just explained—I read that one because I was told that it was basically a medical mystery set on Mars (and it is). But while I enjoyed that aspect of it, it was the rest of it that blew the doors off my mind—that good ole sense of wonder.
After that, I binged on Bova, discovered Robert J. Sawyer (again, because of the medical thriller connection—his novel The Terminal Experiment has a medical thriller element to it), and started exploring a bit more. For most of this time during my modern era of reading, I was working at a Waldenbooks, so I was being exposed to hundreds of new books every day I went to work.
And it was because of my job there that I discovered what became my favorite novel, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. It had just come back into print at some point during my tenure there, and though we didn’t receive any copies in our regular stock, several customers placed special orders (this was before Amazon was big), and I became curious about it after seeing it arrive. So I checked it out for myself, and was forever changed—it completely redefined for me what SF was capable of, and I became more than a little obsessed with trying to find other works that would do for me what that book did.
SM: Three thoughts. One, what a curious idea, that a much older novel would “…completely redefine… for me what SF was capable of…” than more recent novels. Two, it does bring up the issue of the weight of genre fiction. Much of current speculative fiction relies, to a greater or lesser degree, on the reader’s familiarity with previous genre works that I have heard (rightly or not) that budding genre readers sometimes feel as if they are in a strange land without a map. (Apropos, I think, as many novels provide maps to orient the reader to imagined worlds.) Three, what stories or writers have done for you what The Stars My Destination did?
JJA: As to your first point, you have to remember that at that point I hadn’t read a huge amount of SF at that point, and also remember that classics are usually classics for a reason—there’s usually something really special about them that makes them stay with readers. As much as I liked some of the SF I’d read by that point, nothing had come close to the brilliance of The Stars My Destination. At that point, much of what I’d read wasn’t all that different than the medical thrillers or Crichton I’d been reading, so that’s part of the reason Stars was such a revelation. It’s like if the SF I’d been reading was a 5 on a scale of 10, then Stars would have been like cranking it up to 11. Nothing wrong with 5, but when you dial it up like that, it’s bound to make an impact.
I think accessibility is an important attribute in SF. I know what you’re saying about new readers feeling like they’re strangers in a strange land. The stuff I started off with was very newbie-friendly, so it was never much of an issue for me. But even now, with my extensive experience with the genre, I still stumble across books or stories sometimes that seem impenetrable to me—or if not impenetrable, at least difficult enough to access that I don’t feel like bothering. There are some authors—like Charles Stross for example—who are writing great stuff but tend to be right on that edge of accessibility and incomprehensibility (to new readers). On the one hand, core genre readers want to recommend such stuff because it’s New and Exciting, but to me it seems like there’s a lot of modern SF that’s not quite accessible enough (in general), that a new reader would need more context to really appreciate it. Every reader’s different, of course, though, so mileage will vary.
I don’t know if there’s anything that’s done what Stars has done for me—partially because you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There have certainly been other stories and books that have astonished me. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison and “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes always immediately come to mind.
And sometimes there are books that just immediately spring onto your all-time favorites list. Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan is one of those books for me. It might not go down in history as a classic of the genre, but it really pushed all my buttons as a reader.
SM: So you missed out on David Hartwell’s golden age: the notion that age at which science fiction is encountered and embedded is twelve… and yet here you are anyway. You’ve talked about specific writers. Would you expand (or expound) on what about genre fiction attracted you more strongly than, say, mystery (which you mention above), mainstream, or romance?
JJA: I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in my teenaged years, and that, perhaps more than anything, is responsible for my path, despite all the abovementioned reading. That had me thinking about the genre quite a lot, even if I wasn’t reading books in it at the time.
D&D is also what really fired in me a desire to create. At first, I tried running a campaign myself, but I found I didn’t enjoy the running of the game as much as I enjoyed planning out the adventure beforehand. So the natural thing to do seemed to be to write out adventures, but outside of the D&D setting—in other words, write fiction.
Curiously, given my impetus to write, the first thing I ever wrote was not an epic-style fantasy—it was a militaristic space opera sort of thing, probably influenced, more than anything, by John Steakley’s novel Armor and The Stars My Destination. This story, the first thing I wrote, turned into a novel. Yes, I actually wrote a whole novel. And man, is it terrible.
I sometimes still think about going back and revising it, and maybe I will someday. I think it’s got something going for it, even if overall it’s a mess; in college, I adapted the novel into a screenplay for a class I took, and later that screenplay got optioned. Though the fact that it got optioned might say more about how production companies will spend money on almost anything more than it does about the quality of the material.
But anyway, I guess what really attracted me to speculative fiction rather than the other genres was the sense of wonder. SF/fantasy is really the only place to get that. Also, to some degree, it was the escapist factor—I liked being able to immerse myself in a strange other world, and to forget about the real one for a while.
SM: There are some writers who would give their right lobe to have a screenplay optioned. One of the criticisms that sometimes surfaces, usually in a generic form (and often by an SF aficionado as an example of a hypothetical mainstream critic’s critical response to SF) is that SF is only escapist. While much is escapist (particularly in films), F&SF, among other magazines, also regularly publishes fiction confronting current issues—from the stark “Osama Phone Home” to the wild “Kiosk” to the Socratic dialogue “Pervert.” Is SF in a unique position? Elsewhere, in reviewing Wastelands for example, I’ve argued (as have others) that SF underutilizes its extrapolative capabilities. What are your thoughts on the disingenuous dichotomy between so-called serious literature and SF?
JJA: Well—for the readers who don’t know this—having a screenplay (or novel) optioned kind of means they rented the rights to it for a year, during which time they would be the only production company with the option to buy it. So I wouldn’t exactly say it was self-mutilation-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, I was elated. But we’re not talking major bucks here. And actually this company didn’t even pay me the full option fee—I only got half of it, and the half I got was only after I got the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America grievance committee to go after them. They still technically owe me the other half of the payment, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it. Needless to say, they didn’t exercise the option, so the rights reverted fully back to me.
I think you’re right that SF—or at least most SF—doesn’t do all that it can with its extrapolative capabilities. But it’s not always about that; sometimes it’s just about telling a good story, and trying to get too fancy will only bog the story down. It’s a case by case basis, but, like you, I’d love to see more SF that really explores the frontiers of science. I’m hopeful that more stuff like that will come about because of the mundane SF movement, though I really wish they’d come up with another name for it.
Is SF’s position unique? I don’t know. I expect you could do some of the same things in mainstream literature as SF does—and if I thought hard about it I could probably even come up with some examples, or things that come close—but most of it doesn’t. I guess this all really comes down to where the boundaries of SF and mainstream are. If you write a contemporary story with lots of cutting edge science in it, is that SF, or mainstream? SF’s position may be unique, at least in my eyes, because I’d label—at least in my mind—anything that does what SF does as science fiction.
As for the dichotomy between capital-L Literature and SF, well, that dichotomy really only exists in the minds of those who disdain SF without really knowing anything about it. SF is capable of producing great works of Literature, such as some of the examples I’ve discussed above.
SM: Okay. Everyone knows you’re a metal fan. How ’bout first memories of heavy metal?
JJA: Again, I didn’t really identify as a metal fan until much later in life, though I actually remember really liking Billy Idol as young as 6 or 7. Sure, Idol isn’t so much metal as he is hard rock, but it’s pretty close. The first band I remember liking that was definitely classified as metal was Quiet Riot. I definitely had one of their albums—Metal Health—which had this great (to a 7 year old) cover of a guy in a sort of cool-looking straight-jacket and a metal mask. Another early metal or metal-like favorite was Whitesnake.
But the modern era of metal for me began with Metallica. A friend of mine—my ex-step-uncle, actually, though at the time he was my step-uncle—was really, really into music, so much so that he went to the Full Sail school for a music production degree, and when he would come to visit and we’d drive around, he’d always play an assortment of music. He was really into Genesis and stuff like that, but he liked some harder stuff, and it was in his car I first heard Metallica. I became a huge Metallica fan, starting with …And Justice For All, which I played relentlessly. It took a while for me to seek out other metal, as I didn’t know much about it, and wasn’t sure how to find it—they didn’t exactly play it on the radio. Eventually, probably through my step-uncle, I got into Pantera and White Zombie, and on my own discovered Biohazard-strangely enough, because of a rap song: I really dug the instrumentals they provided on the Onyx song, “Slam.”
Speaking of Biohazard and Onyx—they have this great post—apocalyptic, dystopic song called “New World Disorder.” The rappers from Onyx provide some guest vocals. So there’s several different guys singing the different verses, and they’re all describing this fucked-up world. One’s talking about how he’s suffocating because he can’t pay his oxygen bill, and another’s talking about the ruin of Earth and an escape mission to Saturn.
But these days I listen to mostly melodic death metal (a/k/a Gothenberg metal) and metalcore, and lately I’ve been digging some folk metal bands I discovered, which isn’t as odd a pairing of terms as it might sound. It was really only in the past 8 years or so that I really started developing a real knowledge of metal and doing a lot of exploring.
SM: All right. You must explain folk metal. Killswitch covers the Kingston Trio? Metallica meets Joni Mitchell?
JJA: Folk Metal is, according to Wikipedia, a fusion of folk music and metal. I don’t really know much about folk music, so that doesn’t help me much, but I do like the results. The bands I’ve been listening to—Enisferum, Korpiklaani, Turisas, and Wintersun—are all from Finland. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure why these particular bands are labeled folk metal, as most of it doesn’t seem that dissimilar from a lot of the other metal I listen to, but exploring bands in that sub-genre has worked out for me so far, so I’m going to continue to do so. They sing about Vikings a lot, and swords and battle, that kind of thing. If the “folk” referred to “folklore,” that would make sense, but typically in folk music I don’t think it does necessarily.
One of the bands—Korpiklaani—definitely uses some instruments typical of folk music, like the violin and accordion. Bet you didn’t know you could play an accordion in a metal band. Korpiklaani to me seems to be the most “folk” of all the bands I’ve mentioned. Their music, the tempo of it, the beats, it feels like folk to me, whereas the other bands that’s not as true. Turisas has some very epic sort of songs, like “Miklagard Overture”; it makes me think of like, Wagner or something. I could see their album “The Varangian Way” being put on as an opera—it probably jumps to mind not only because of the operatic quality of the music, but also because it’s a concept album: a story is told via the lyrics of all the songs.
SM: Returning to fiction… outside of the genre (including science fiction, fantasy, and horror), do you have favorite authors or story types?
JJA: Outside of SF/fantasy/horror, my favorite genre is mystery, and I’ve read extensively there as well. As I mentioned above, I’ve read tons of medical thrillers, and while that eventually led me to SF, it also led me to mystery. That started with Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner mysteries, and from there I started reading other non-medical mysteries.
Either Lawrence Block or George Pelecanos is probably my favorite mystery writer, and so by default, probably my favorite out-of-the-genre writer. I’d have to give the edge to Block, as I’ve read a lot more of his stuff (and, well, he’s written a lot more stuff). Some of his Matthew Scudder novels are among my favorites.
My love for mysteries extends to film and television as well. I’m a huge fan of The Wire (which Pelecanos writes for) and, as I’ve said on my blog recently, I think Showtime’s Dexter is the best show on TV right now.
SM: On to Wastelands… I’m curious as to how Jerry Oltion’s story came to be the only one original to the collection.
JJA: Several years ago, I tried shopping around an original post-apocalyptic anthology, but got no takers. While the project was active, Jerry heard about it and asked if he could send me something for consideration—it was something he’d already written but hadn’t sold.
Well, that original anthology didn’t sell, but when I sold Wastelands, it occurred to me that maybe I could include an original story, and I thought about Jerry’s story, which I liked quite a lot, especially for the way it merged the science fictional apocalypse with the biblical apocalypse—something which I thought made it unique among post-apocalyptic fiction. Night Shade was fine with me including an original story, and Jerry was game, so there you have it.
SM: Do you plan to do more?
JJA: I certainly plan to do more anthologies—I’ve got a project I’m working on for Prime Books called Seeds of Change, which should be out sometime this summer, and I’m currently reading zombie stories for another reprint anthology for Night Shade, which is probably going to be called The Living Dead.
If you’re asking do I plan to do more with post-apocalyptic fiction—well, sure, I’d love to do an original volume of post-apocalyptic SF. It seems to be popular right now with both readers and writers. It’s been so popular with the writers, in fact, that I’ve joked that if we published all of the post-apocalyptic stories we’ve been receiving lately at F&SF, we’d have to change the name of the magazine to Mutants & Marauders Monthly.
SM: Really? Do you have any theories as to why its popularity waxes and wanes?
John Joseph Adams: Well, as I say in the introduction, I think it tends to wax and wane with the state of the world. It first came to prominence during the Cold War, when the threat of annihilation was a very real possibility. Now, the world is in a similar political climate, with the terrorist threat hanging over us. Between 1989 (when the Cold War ended) and 2001 (when 9/11 happened), there wasn’t a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction being published. Prior to that, there was, and now again, there is. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
SM: You’ve recently guest-edited a pirate-themed issue of Shimmer. How did that come about, and why pirates?
JJA: The folks at Shimmer decided they wanted to do a guest-edited issue of the magazine, at least in part as a way to publicize it, as a way to branch out to a new readership. (I’m guessing they were inspired by John Scalzi’s guest-editing of an issue of Subterranean Magazine.)
I’d had some reviews published in Shimmer; the first was something they’d asked if they could reprint from my blog, and then I had at least one other review run with them because they seemed like good people and I liked what I’d seen of the zine. So when they came up with the idea to do a guest-editor sort of thing, they’d emailed me asking me some questions about that process—how such a thing would work, etc. I don’t know if asking those questions was a way of sending out feelers, but as I answered them, I made a point of saying, “I don’t know who you were planning to get for this, but I might be interested…”
So anyway, they offered me the guest-editing gig, which I happily accepted. When we began discussing the theme, it didn’t go much farther beyond pirates. They had had the idea already that they might like to do a pirate-themed issue, and when they mentioned that I seized upon it—I love pirates myself, so if we all love pirates, why look any further? The idea was to publish the issue to coincide with Talk Like a Pirate Day. It ended up coming out a bit later than that due to production snafus, but I think it turned out rather well, and I enjoyed the process.
As it happens, I’d tried to sell an original anthology of pirate fantasies a couple years ago. After seeing the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and having witnessed the surge of people looking for pirate books at the bookstore after the movie let out, I thought for sure the time would be right. And at that point they were already talking sequel, so I thought it would be perfect: Do the pirate book now, have it ready to publish when the second film comes out. Alas, no one was interested. I was really baffled by that one. And I’m really kind of surprised there still hasn’t been a pirate anthology published. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have one coming out from Night Shade Books next year, but still—I’m really surprised no one did one years ago.
My love for pirates goes back to video games as well, strangely enough. There was this fabulous video game—Sid Meier’s Pirates—that I played incessantly as a kid. Sid would later go on to make the greatest video game ever, Civilization (which I also played incessantly), but Pirates was my first love.
Also, The Princess Bride is my favorite movie, and has been for years, so there’s another pirate connection.
SM: You’ve said you’re a fan of the Oakland Raiders. Do you dress up like hard-core Raider Nation?
JJA: Sorry to disappoint, but no. I’ve got a Raiders wool cap, but that’s about the only Raiders gear I ever wear. I’ve got an old jersey around somewhere too—a Rich Gannon, #12—but I never wear it anymore. Or I should say I theoretically have a Raiders wool cap. I misplaced it around the time of the World Fantasy Convention and I haven’t been able to find it since. It may be in Saratoga Springs somewhere.
My love of the Raiders is the extent of my Oakland fandom. I’ve never been there, and I don’t follow any of the other sports teams from the area, though when I first got into basketball, I was rather fond of the Golden State Warriors, mainly because they had a cool name, but also because at the time Chris Mullin was one of their star players, and I’ve always been fond of three-point specialists.
SM: With F&SF, do you and editor Gordon Van Gelder ever strongly disagree?
JJA: Sure—there have been stories that I thought were brilliant that Gordon turned down, and he’s bought stuff that I didn’t much like. But I think that’s a good thing. If our tastes were exactly the same, my feedback wouldn’t be very useful to him; on the other hand, it’s important that my taste is similar to his, so that I can find the stuff in the slush that he’d be interested in looking at. I think we have a good balance.
Also, we can’t seem to agree on office temperature. At the office, in the winter I’m always cold and in the summer I’m always hot. There have been days when I’m all bundled up with longjohns and a big winter coat, I come into the office and find he’s got the window open. He’s like invulnerable to the cold!
SM: Do you ever experience slush exhaustion?
JJA: Nah. I mean, sure, sometimes I get a bit frustrated, but I wouldn’t call it exhaustion. I’m more annoyed by the stupid procedural errors people make; with the fiction, I know everyone’s trying their best with the stories they submit, so I cut them some slack—it’s not like they’re sending me bad stories on purpose.
I think one of the keys to surviving being a slush reader is to keep a healthy dose of good fiction in your diet. If all you read is the mostly bad stories in the slush pile all day, I think you’d go mad, or at least get completely fed up with it.
There’s a certain amount of good fiction I have to read—for F&SF, in preparation for interviews, etc.—but when it comes to reading for pure pleasure, that can be tough sometimes. Because I’m reading so much at work, when I’m at home, lots of times I don’t feel like doing more reading, even if it’s something I’ve been eager to dive into. I tend to watch a lot of TV to decompress.
SM: Between F&SF, SCI-FI Wire, and various reviews and interviews, you are in a rare position to have both a fan’s and an insider’s view of speculative fiction. How would you characterize the current state of the genre, both in print and visual media?
JJA: It seems to me like print SF is experiencing a kind of golden age—there’s just a wealth of great stuff being published, so much so that it sometimes pains me that I don’t have time to read all of this great stuff that’s coming out. Both in short fiction and in novels. It’s frustrating that some the stuff that I think is more deserving doesn’t get the attention that a bestseller does, but as far as I can tell, that’s how it’s always been. I do find myself in a position in which I can actually help the authors I like though—whether it’s by publishing their stories in anthologies or getting them coverage in SCI FI Wire or other places.
As for visual media, well, I’m always happy to see a new SF or fantasy film do really well at the box office, but I can’t say that I’m very impressed with most of what comes out on film. There’s almost always something good about them, but overall they’re just not good movies. For instance, the new Will Smith version of I Am Legend. Great visuals depicting a post-apocalypse New York, great performances by Smith and his German Shepherd companion, and the first 2/3rds of the movie are really quite good. And then it all abruptly falls apart. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, but suffice to say something really, really dumb happens and then a bunch of action movie clichés are inserted for the big climax. So disappointing. Also? Those CGI vampire-mutants were totally lame.
But anyway—it’s very rare for me to find a good SF or fantasy film or television show. I even seem to rarely like stuff that critics and other genre fans embrace. So to me, visual SF seems to be a bit of a wasteland. But I guess I’m in the minority on that; a lot of those movies are raking in millions of dollars, so more power to them. I only wish those popular SF films would convert more SF viewers to SF readers.
SM: Any truth to those rumors of an interoffice romance (and their love child) between F&SF’s publisher Gordon Van Gelder and assistant publisher Barbara Norton?
JJA: I don’t know anything about any interoffice romances, but when I showed up at the office one day, Gordon did have a baby with him. I don’t know where he got it, or what the story is there—I don’t like to pry.
For a while there, whenever he had her in the office, she’d just stare at me. I took this as a compliment, as I’d read somewhere that babies tend to fixate and stare at beautiful people. I liked that better than Gordon’s theory anyway—that because I’m bald, she thought she was looking at a giant baby.
SM: Bald is beautiful, baby!
Vandana Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in a cultural milieu that fostered the traditions as well as creativity and independent thinking. She acquired an early interest in the sciences as well as in writing and art. In her teenage years she was involved in a student environment group, an experience that shaped her life-long interest in the relationship between humans and Nature.
Later she acquired a Master’s degree in Physics from Delhi University and a PhD from the U.S., where she currently resides.
She divides her time between teaching college physics, raising her family, and writing non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as children’s stories. Her science fiction and fantasy short stories, deeply rooted in an Indian ethos, have been published in various anthologies and magazines in the U.S. and U.K. Her stories have appeared in “Year’s Best” collections and have been short-listed for the BSFA and Parallax awards.
Her first book for children, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in India by Young Zubaan in 2004 and in America by Viking Penguin (April 2006). The sequel, Younguncle in the Himalayas, was publishing in 2005 in India by Young Zubaan and Puffin books. Her novella “Love and Other Monsters,” reviewed in this issue of Ideomancer, is available from Aqueduct Press. A collection of her stories will soon be available from Zubaan.
Sean Melican: Though you say “The Sign in the Window” is your only mainstream story, two others (“The Wife”, “Hunger”) would be comfortable under the ‘mainstream’ rubric. Certainly, they don’t have the usual science fiction or fantasy signifiers. Why have you chosen to submit to genre markets, or have they chosen you?
Vandana Singh: I’m obviously not very good at literary taxonomy or don’t care enough about it! “The Wife” is to me a spec fic story and “Hunger” was written after “The Sign in the Window.” (And I don’t update my website often enough). The latter story, by the way, while being mainstream, has something of a spec fic sensibility. You know, the universe being filled with messages that we try to interpret, to fit into our lives and circumstances, rightly or wrongly-all that is to me very spec fic. There has to be some element of the non-Euclidean in every story I write. I am utterly, totally, completely incapable of writing straight mainstream fare.
This is also why I submit to genre markets-I feel at home in genre. I enjoy a lot of non-genre stuff, but I’m a denizen of the spec fic world.
SM: As a corollary, how did you become interested in reading generally, and speculative fiction specifically?
VS: How does one become interested in breathing? : Seriously, though, I grew up in middle class, urban India where education and learning are a VERY big deal and all the kids know the alphabet in at least two languages by age three. I grew up in a house full of books and no TV, and my parents both had master’s degrees in English Literature, and I could read in English and Hindi from a very early age. My mother and my paternal grandmother also told stories to us kids from the old epics: stories about demons and gods, monsters and flying chariots.
SM: While I understand what you mean by ‘non-Euclidean’ writing, how do you go about consciously or unconsciously doing so?
VS: Well, I don’t consciously try to do it but the few times I’ve tried writing mainstream fiction I’ve stopped after a couple of paragraphs because I’ve bored myself to tears. It is not that I find mainstream fiction itself boring-I love a lot of realist writing-but I can’t seem to do it myself. Even if there is no overt magic or science fiction in a story of mine, there is awareness of a subtext that hints that things aren’t as they seem on the surface; that there may be hidden relationships and connections. Which I think gives it a fantastical sensibility. It’s a reflection of the way I look at the world, as a sort of palimpsest. The universe is non-Euclidean. I have an urge to bring that into my writing because I find it exciting. That’s it in a nutshell.
SM: How does being a Hindu, an Indian, and a woman affect you writing and your perception of speculative fiction?
VS: Well, I guess in the same way that a white American writer’s identity and experience might shape their writing. So where it might be natural for an American writer to set his or her story in Boston or New York, for me the natural place is Delhi, where I grew up. I was part of various women’s movements in India in my own small way, and witnessed or experienced the contradictions of being female in Indian society. My own vast family has some wonderfully strong women in it, even where the structure is more traditional, and I learned very early on that human systems are complex, that you can’t easily generalize. Hence my strong allergic reaction to stereotyping. As for Hinduism, I grew up in a Hindu family, listening to myths and legends and being part of various religious festivities and ceremonies. At the same time I was taught to be curious and tolerant, and left free to reject any part of Hinduism that I did not agree with-all of which are very Hindu attitudes. So my Hinduism, as befits a religion that has no founder and no single creed, is personal; I’m religiously an agnostic but I have a sense of the sacred, a sense of being part of a web of existence, of living in a rich metaphorical space. Complexity, connectedness, a blurring of boundaries between (for instance) animal and human, a sense that the universe is changing and staying still all at the same time. The audacity to think big, like the ancient Indian philosophers and mathematicians who came up with names for unimaginably enormous numbers. I don’t know how all that shows up in my fiction; I leave that to interested critics.
I should mention that my background in physics contributes as much (I suspect) to my writing as any of the above. I teach physics at a small and wonderful liberal arts college and although I don’t do research any more I still ponder the great unsolved questions. My writing ties into all this very directly because it can be a vehicle for the wild speculations of my imagination, allowing me an intellectual high or two in a different way from research.
SM: Since you are perhaps the only Indian speculative fiction writer, at least within the Western ghetto, it is dangerously easy to (unfairly) assume that you are not only an individual but speak for Indians in general, to say that the experiences you write about are not simply an individual’s life but represent the lives of all Indian women. Are you aware of any such pressure? How much is autobiographical?
VS: First, I’m happy to announce that there are increasing numbers of Indian or Indian-origin speculative fiction writers now living and writing in the Western world (as well as in India). There’s Anil Menon, for instance, who is brilliant and has been published in many anthologies and also in Strange Horizons, and a whole crop of other talents emerging from Clarion workshops. There are also many writers in India who are writing spec fic of various kinds, and in fact there is a long tradition of science fiction in some Indian languages like Bengali. But when I first started to write this stuff (which was after I came to the U.S.) I didn’t know about most of that. I also didn’t know any other Indians in this part of the world who were into spec fic, and it was pretty lonely. My first writers’ conference (in Portland, OR) I stood out among the science fiction and fantasy crowd. An agent who was one of the guests advised me not to worry about writing SF and told me quite kindly that I was a multicultural writer who should be writing about saris and arranged marriages. That was the first time I realized that some people saw me as an alien in the SF field. This was both annoying and extremely amusing. Later on I became part of the Cambridge Science fiction Workshop and made friends among other writers, so that changed.
But to get back to your question: I don’t know if people take me as representing all Indian women or not; I hope they don’t! What I’d love to see are many more voices than mine in spec fic from Indians, including women, and that is happening slowly.
As for whether any of my writing is autobiographical: to an extent everything I write is, because it is the world as seen through my eyes, through the filters of my own experiences and discoveries. Some stories have a kernel based on actual events but I extrapolate wildly from those to form the story. For example my story Hunger took off from the memory of an old man who lived at the top of the stairs in our apartment building in Delhi, who had been thrown out by his son and who ultimately starved to death despite our attempts to help him. My story Delhi is filled with personal reminiscences of various places in the city of Delhi, although the events that happened to the protagonist certainly never happened to me. I’m also working on a novella set in the far future on a space station at the other end of the galaxy. Among other things it is about a woman’s search for scientific truth and for identity, and I’m no stranger to that sort of thing.
SM: Is there the beginning of a theme with “Hunger” and “Thirst”? Will we see “Exhaustion,” “Desire” or “Fear”?
VS: J Perhaps we can also add “Despair,” “Dyspepsia” and “Love-sick Yearning!” But seriously, no, there is no theme. It is sheer coincidence that I happened to write stories with those titles
SM: On your website, you mention that you “…discovered [you] wanted to be a writer.” Traditionally a writer says she or he has always wanted to be a writer. How did this discovery occur?
VS: Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve always been writing, but I never thought of being a writer in the sense of submitting stories and being professional and all that, until much later in life. To me writing, like reading, is akin to breathing: I do it because I can’t seem to help it. (I suppose that makes it some kind of pathological condition).
When I took a nine-year break from academia in order to home-school my daughter, I realized that I wanted to write, not just for myself, but because I thought I might actually have something to say to the world. So it was a discovery. Not a one-time revelation but something that dawned on me over time.
SM: You seem to move easily between adult fiction and children’s fiction, and while you’ve said you don’t have an interest in the taxonomy of fiction, at the very least, they have different audiences. What differences are there in your approach to each? Many writers say they write for a particular person (sometimes persons). Do you have such a person or persons? Are they different for each type of writing?
VS: I still read a lot of children’s fiction. I haven’t outgrown that and hope never to do so! There’s a part of me that is always eleven years old, and I like to honor that when I write. So for me the boundary between children’s fiction and adult fiction is blurred. The only difference is that I limit such things as sex and violence and similar themes that kids may not be ready for. But I do put in things that all kids go through: the pain of having to grow up, the realization of their parents’ fallibility, the realization that security in this world is a fragile, illusory thing. And spades of the whole sense-of-wonder thing, which is how I still remember seeing the world as I grew up.
I don’t have a particular person or persons for whom I write, although my Younguncle stories for children were first told to entertain my daughter when she was sick. To some extent I’m writing for myself, for the eleven-year-old inside me, as well as the alleged grown-up.
SM: Is some of the artwork for Younguncle Comes to Town intended to resemble the art in Curious George books? I realize writers rarely have control over the art, of course.
VS: The American edition has cover art by Sandy Nichols, but the interior art is by the New Delhi artist B.M. Kamath. I am not aware of any deliberate attempt to make the art resemble that in the Curious George books.
SM: What particular impulses have driven you to tell your stories?
VS: Well, the world is a complex and endlessly fascinating place. In various ways my writing is an attempt to help me make sense of this complexity. And to celebrate it or comment on it in some way. I don’t seem to be able to stop myself from doing that.
The things that excite me about the world generally show up in my writing: the quirkiness of human beings, animals, the physical universe, the mental spaces we inhabit. How we impose structure on the world-from sociological expectations, customs and rules to our attempts to scientifically model Nature-and yet, despite these attempts, the world keeps wriggling out from under our various schemes. So people and animals confound our expectations and the universe turns out to be mostly made of dark matter, all of which makes it a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise. The impulse that leads me to ponder scientific questions is at heart the same one that leads me to write: to try to make sense of a gorgeously complex tapestry while being the size of a mite crawling about in it. The green and red threads indicate a sort of pattern, and that works for a while, but then there is this unexpected blue weave. You know? And what can you do but follow one thread or another, and make your little hypotheses and thought experiments, and be hilariously wrong much of the time before you discover another local truth. And you have to step back from it at various times and just celebrate how confoundedly crazy and interesting everything is. The way I choose to do that is to tell a story.
SM: Thank you!
Tobias S. Buckell was born in the Caribbean and now lives in Ohio. He’s sold more than thirty short stories and published two novels: Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, which came out this July. His blog can be found at tobiasbuckell.com.
Sean: Why did you choose reading as a pastime? What led you to read and write speculative fiction in particular?
Tobias: I grew up in the Caribbean on a boat. It’s a very off-the-grid sort of experience, and I’m one of the few people around my generation I know of who grew up without TV for the most part. My mother was also a single parent, she really pushed reading as early as she could as it worked as a great babysitter. Once I got to reading novels at 5 or 6 I would settle in for hours at a time.
SM: How Travis McGee.
TB: Yeah. I loved John D. McDonald’s books growing up. I imagined that I ever lived in the states I would find a dock in Ft. Lauderdale, not on a houseboat but a regular yacht like the one I was growing up. But environments like that always bump you into a cast of characters that are fascinating with wild backgrounds and stories. People who leave the normal 48 states to live on boats, or who have always been living on boats, are always interesting people.
SM: Aside from young kids destined to become science fiction writers, what sorts of people and do they appear in some form in your books and stories?
TB: I don’t know if they appear as such in a whole form, but fragments of them show up here and there. Certainly the wandering spaceship types map well to wandering yachts people.
SM: What is the origin of the terms Ragamuffin and mongoose-men?
TB: The origins are somewhat negative, actually. Ragamuffin is a self applied ingroup term for Jamaican youngsters. Some etymology I’ve seen suggests it comes from the British using it to describe Jamaicans as urchins, as a slur. If it was a slur, which I suspect so, it has now been reclaimed in the Caribbean to describe tough young Caribbean people. A friend of mine calls it roughly analogous to the urban American term ‘hood rat’ which is a term in the process of being reclaimed by urban youth in some areas. In my first book, as ragamuffins are often associated with lawlessness, I thought having them be the historical police for of my Caribbean descended people on another planet would be another unique way of reclaiming and playing with the word and its multiple meanings for both English and Caribbean creole speakers.
Mongoose-men is a word only I am playing with reclaiming. It’s a word with a particularly complex history for Grenada. I was doing research into the revolution of ’79 leading up to the US Invasion. I was born for the ‘revo’ and parts of the invasion are some of my first memories and experiences as a child. I wanted some context, and while digging around, I found out that there was allegedly a secret police unit that may have been up to no good working for the communist government. These people were tagged ‘mongoose-men’ by people on the island. I thought the phrase for a special forces type group was too good not to use. I had a lot of reservations about it, don’t get me wrong, but I finally decided to risk reusing that darker piece of history for something more positive.
SM: You appear to have not only an interest in reclaiming, but a solid sense of linguistics; for example, you play with the evolution of language in isolated communities and obscene words forged from a group’s most charged act (bleeding.) Where did you develop such a sense?
TB: You’re doing the favor of making me look far smarter than I am with that question. I guess this comes back down to my background. I remember people on yachts speaking German, French and Italian who came into harbors in Grenada so that got me exposed and interested in the various languages out there.
My first major cultural conflict was about language. I was standing on a dock near another kid. We’re peeing off the side, as kids will do on pier in a boatyard. He pointed at the water and said ‘vasa.’ I pointed and said ‘water.’ There was a bit of an escalation, us yelling it louder and louder back and forth, each unwilling to redefine our understanding of the world. The cultural exchange ended with me, I’m ashamed to admit, pushing him into the water.
But that’s not the fundamental interest I have in language. In the Caribbean language has been taken and remixed, mashed up, and adapted into a Creole. It’s not just an accent, but there are Africanate grammar structures that are still evident, with English and even some Old English words still there.
My teachers, and western adults around me, often labeled this ‘bad English.’ I ascribed to that a little bit as a kid, but reading James Herriot blew that out of the water. Who the hell could call any Caribbean Creole bad English but then not go after Cockney, Yorkshire or Scottish accents?
In order to fit in as a kid, I held the ability to flip between Creole at times and a full British accent at others. When I moved to the US Virgin Islands, I dropped almost all traces of British from my accent without even realizing. I also adapted to the ‘milder’ Creole.
In Ohio as I went to college my accent again shifted to match what I heard most around me (except I keep softer ‘ah’ sounds in ‘aunt,’ and ‘France’ for example). But I took a linguistics course and began reading a ton about how languages shift as different cultures and groups interact and repurpose language. So vowel sounds shift over time, and words are simplified, I tried to add some of that to the fiction.
SM: What led to using an Aztec-analogue society?
TB: You know, when I was a kid I still remember to this day the first time the history teacher unveiled the concept that there were these dudes that freaking ripped out other people’s hearts and sacrificed them live to their gods. And they just glossed over this and moved on.
As a kid, this was morbidly interesting and, to put it mildly, scary. And the older I got, the more I read about religious practices in the ancient world, the more weirded out I got. Yeah the Aztecs make perfect boogeymen, but the more you read about their personal/religious rationalizations, the weirder. The idea of needing blood to keep your world going around is nothing new, the Aztecs just took it very, very seriously.
But it also let me examine a huge issue I wanted to explore, which is the entire issue of following religious dogma. As a kid, and still today, the decision that Abraham makes to sacrifice his son to god on the mountain is no different than the one Aztecs made every time they had a sacrifice. I wanted to give a character Abraham’s choice: asked to do something morally wrong by a god. What would you do? Most of my readers, religious and not, love the character of Oaxyctl, who is asked to do just this to the book’s hero, making him the villain. But like any religious person, Oaxyctl believes that anything a god asks is moral. Or is it? His solution and struggle to this made him a very interesting character, I get a lot of fan mail about him.
SM: What kind of fan mail do you get?
TB: Well, being so webified, I get fan-email! I also note that a lot of fans are turning to writing up reviews on blogs or in forums, which they then drop me a note of via email. Some are direct emails from various people of all sorts who enjoyed the book. A fair amount of it is from people of diverse backgrounds, happy to see a lot of fun being had with the tropes that got them to fall in love with the genre, but with a more diverse cast than usual.
SM: Were you raised in any specific religion? Are you religious? Some scientists, science fiction writers, and science fiction fans (by no means all) perceive that religion and science are mutually exclusive, and though you’ve incorporated religion into your universe, the only gods are aliens. Is this indicative of your viewpoint?
TB: I was raised mainly in Church of Christ congregations by my mother for a while, due to their missionary presence in the Caribbean. Anglicanism was widespread as well, I was in a few Anglican churches growing up, and went to an Anglican private school in the US Virgin Islands. As for me personally, I made the mistake of being an avaricious reader and reading the bible cover to cover several times. I also read a lot of other religious texts and was around Rastafarians, Hindi, and Islamic believers when young. It struck me that everyone was so convinced they were right, but had such varying beliefs that I became a generalist (maybe they’re all somehow right and digging at a higher truth) as a kid. By the time I was in college I decided being an agreeable atheist was a more honest approach.
As for the only gods being alien in this book, it was more of my attempt to fictionalize the Abraham dilemma, one of my biggest hangups. In Sunday school it was always taught that Abraham was a hero for obeying god when god asks him to kill his son as a sacrifice, obedience being one of these qualities that seems to come with religion. But I have a problem with the fact that if what a god tells you is moral, then all you have to do is believe that a god is telling you to do something to believe its moral. In my own mental world as a kid, realizing that my parents considered a potential child murderer a hero and actively was being taught this by adults at lessons, was truly disturbing. Yeah god spares Isaac’s life at the last second, but as Jesus pointed out, it’s not the act, it’s making the mental decision to act that makes you criminal.
So my character Oaxyctl, then, is given a direct order by what he believes is a god to capture, torture, and maybe kill a decent human being. He then has to struggle with following a god’s commands or being apostate. Not surprising to me is that I do get a lot of readers, of all religions, saying they identified with Oaxyctl quite a bit.
SM: In Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, humanity has made it into space, but unlike much of science fiction, we are treated as inferior by every other alien race. What impulse(s) led to this conceit?
TB: Looking at the age of exploration pretty much shows you what happens whenever a group meets with a technological variance this behavior commences. Traditionally in SF we assume a couple things, that either humans will be the superior group making first contact, or that we’re plucky enough that human spirit will overcome a technological inbalance.
And that’s somewhat true. Arawaks were pretty easy-going folk. They literally don’t exist. Caribs were demonized for being violent cannibals (early state propaganda efforts), but that’s because they didn’t conveniently roll over, but fought the Europeans for every island until they were cordoned off into a few reservations, but managed to survive. The assumption that humans would win entirely against a technologically superior group through some plucky trick that puts them on top of the foodchain is a bit of a reach. But making exterminating us enough of a hassle that the race survives in some form, that seems doable looking at historical analogues, but it would be a tough line.
SM: The term ‘Emancipation’ carries substantial historical baggage. Why did you choose this term?
TB: Partly for all that baggage. Just taking a person out of direct bondage, slavery, doesn’t mean a magic wand has been waved and everything has been equalized and is okay or better. I posit that humans in the past have had a tougher go of it than in Ragamuffin, but that they have a long way to go yet.
SM: That is not a very common attitude, especially among science fiction writers and readers who assume (and never explore) a future lacunae during which ethnicity and gender cease to be charged terms, or even dividers between superior and inferior. I’ve even heard some writers choose to use aliens as a mask for discussing ethnic, racial, and sexual issues. How would you characterize the current state of science fiction with respect to racial and ethnic issues?
TB: I guess it isn’t common. I always think that when SF/F writers move first to using aliens as the other that it’s dangerous. Dangerous because it makes the other REALLY other. Let’s make scary-weird aliens stand in for black people? I love writing SF because you CAN use tools like that to decontextualize baggage. But on the flip side, using aliens like that has made us lazy. I think its an overused tool now, and it’s time to maybe engage those issues a bit more honestly. Because here’s the thing, when aliens are being played as others, there are still very few humans who are non-caucasian in that crew. What happened to all the non-white people? Have they just not been allowed to leave the planet? Do they even exist? Some SF watches and reads like there was a massive genocide on the planet that wiped out all non-white people, if you really get down to it. It’s kind of spooky.
SM: Why is science fiction, which has all of the past, present and future to play with, so reticent to tackle issues of race, ethnicity and color?
TB: I imagine it’s because many authors are petrified of making a mistake and being labeled as racist, or prejudiced. It’s like being called a Nazi. Why take the risk, they imagine, when they can just dodge the whole issue. Some authors probably don’t even think of it.
Other authors are convinced that having characters of color in the main narrative will prevent you from selling books. I’ve seen this repeated online and on some panels by authors, often with a shrug and a “it’s not my fault, it’s just the way it is” statement.
What’s funny is that some writers talk about wanting their writing to be read down through the ages, or at least in a couple decades. I’m laughing because the US Census has run some scenarios showing that the US will be increasingly diverse, not less, with almost half the nation being non-caucasian within thirty years or so. That’s your audience.
SM: Except the science fiction audience is overwhelmingly Caucasian. Is that likely to change?
TB: By about 2030 the US Census says the US will possibly be about 50% caucasian and 50% everyone else. If SF/F is still about and only for Caucasians it is fast tracking itself into irrelevancy for a significant part of the population.
SM: On your blog, you encourage the writing characters of different races and ethnicities even by white writers. What writers, genre or otherwise, write well about issues of race, ethnicity and color?
TB: I recommend it because the world is a multi-colored and multi-ethnic one, so the future will be one. A future that has none of that feels… a bit drab to me. I encourage it because how can we be SF writers, talking about things that have yet to come, the alien, the near-unintelligible, but then our writers say they can’t do something like get into the head of an already existing human that just happens to have a slightly different background or skin color?
Some of my favorite genre writers do this. Ian McDonald in River of Gods. Bruce Sterling in Islands in the Net. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s novels feature a diverse cast. Arthur C. Clarke did feature a couple novels with non-caucasian major characters, and often featured a truly global cast (think 2001/2010, which had computer programmer Dr. R. Chandra, go Clarke, but then in the movies, he becomes a white dude. Boo Hollywood). Neil Gaiman earned a great deal of respect with me in Anansi Boys for doing it with a deft touch in the background. Paolo Bacigalupi’s stuff is great too. They’re there.
And while I do encourage this gently via my blog, I prefer leading by example. I have worked hard to portray a complex and multi-ethnic future in the novels, and my hope is that it will show other people that it can be done and be a lot of fun and feature adventure, explosions, and wonder.
SM: You do have write with a ‘sense of wonder’, and yet your novels and stories are also political, in the sense of incorporating the issues above. Is it difficult to strike a balance? Do you worry that with all the gosh-wow scenes that readers might miss the diversity issues?
TB: You know, I’m not trying to hammer people over the head with this whole diversity thing, it’s more an attempt to redress the casting that has traditionally been done. The sense of wonder is what drew me to SF/F in the first place. I think of literature as the dreams of humanity: humanity processing where it’s been, where it is, what’s happening to it. SF/F is like the imagination of humanity, what we might be, what could have been, what may be. I always want that to ensnare people, because it is what made me fall in love with the genre, and it’s what I can’t get out of other genres.
SM: The ship in which the grounation occurs is the Cornell West. Are you a fan?
TB: Yeah, I get a big kick out of him. I thought the least I could do was offer up a small piece of homage.
SM: He was also in one of the Matrix movies.
TB: I missed that.
SM: Not only are we inferior, but rather than banding together (another common trope), at least two groups of humans – the Azteca and Hongguo – betray our race. The Azteca practice human sacrifice and the Hongguo enforce the Benevolent Satrapy’s will; and though they do so willingly (though neurological ‘programming’ is possible) they are sympathetic characters. What thought processes or research led to these groups – were there historical, mythical, or anthropological precedents? – and how did you manage to balance their traitorous behavior with that of the need to treat them as fully fleshed out characters?
TB: Rarely does an entire group of people in the various tribes of humanity stand as one. Had England won the war against the states in 1776, Benedict Arnold would be a national hero who helped put down seditious rebels. These things are often matters of perspective, and in the book the Hongguo are certainly willing collaborators. From their point of view they’re trying to help humanity stay alive by insulating it from the nastier alien races and policing humanity. Right now there are people in countries assisting the U.S. and their fellow countrymen regard them as traitors. Are they? It always depends on how history fleshes out. The Hongguo, I think, were good guys for a long time, trying to prove to technologically superior aliens that humans could play nice in their place. Certainly I feel a lot of sympathy for people who have to make a choice, and neither choice is going to be a good one. Fight as rebels in what is surely going to be a losing fight, adopt terrorist tactics, or collaborate with the enemy and assure some form of survival, moral compromises come out of all three of those options.
SM: Along those lines, you write characters who are deeply flawed. One heroic figure commits torture. (At least, we assume he does since we don’t actually see it.) Another faces the choice of either betraying a friend or saving a people, but you also mix in a desire for personal power. Is it difficult to write morally ambiguous characters?
TB: I have to reach a bit harder. It’s easier to write the simple, the black and white. Someone’s the villain, someone’s the hero.
Partly, again, my life gives me an interesting background to examine this. I grew up in Grenada while it was being invaded by the US. I know some of the reasons the Grenadians had for the revolution: a desire for better infrastructure, pay, education, life in general. Many people’s lives under post-colonial Westernism, an economic dominance of the island by outsiders, sucked so bad they were desperate to try anything else, many of them. And for various reasons the revolution went south, so the invasion comes. Who’s the bad guy? The soldier who is Grenadian, some guy hoping for a better life and future, the US soldier hoping to prevent another Cuba and who’s just following orders. It’s a mess. Finding the easy bad guy is tough.
SM: Further, while you use several science fiction tropes (aliens, spaceships, wormholes, and so forth) you ‘violate’ some of the traditional accompanying narrative structures. A major character dies, but not for some grand martyrdom. An egomaniacal freedom fighter spouts cliches. Humans are not united (there’s no Federation or Galactic Council or some other damn thing) even after defining a common enemy, but split along ideological lines; and for the reader, neither side is particularly in the wrong. How do you manage to balance moral ambiguity with the hero/villain dichotomy implicit in so much genre material?
TB: I’m always trying to find the fun in those tropes (inscrutable aliens, big spaceships) but turn them to flip them around a bit. I guess I want the tropes to come off as believable, deep down, even as you’re experiencing the wild fun. For example, the scene from Ragamuffin where the heroine is carrying a 50 pound minigun is patently the sort of ridiculous thing you always see on covers. But miniguns have so much freaking recoil they’ll knock you on your ass (Jesse Ventura in that famous Predator scene had to be strapped and braced to a support structure to fire the gun). So instead, you start thinking about how to make this something a human being would really have to be using. The cheap trick would have just been to have her pick up a minigun and shoot the bad guys with it. The cool upside down thing is to have her use it to propel herself down the center of space station where there is no gravity. I don’t know if I always succeed in turning things upside down, but whenever I can take a trope and twist it like that, I get a huge rush.
SM: And it’s on the cover.
TB: Yeah, how cool is that? I was really blown away that we got it right on the cover.
SM: I can’t recall reading any space opera (is Ragamuffin space opera?) where the substantial financial burden of owning and maintaining spaceships dictates that the Ragamuffin and Hongguo harass one another, but rarely risk full combat. Was there a historical or biological analogue, or a logical or scientific reasoning, or was there another impulse?
TB: I would call Ragamuffin a space opera, certainly. War is a very expensive, even for well funded states. For more cobbled together groups, it is devastating, so even casual piracy is something that needs some financial sense behind it. When ships fought each other, even in the days of sail, which Space Opera often tries to imitate, the trick was often to capture a prize and bring it back to your side. Complete annihilation is newsworthy and looks great on the screen, but even after devastation, the ships captured would be patched back up. That aspect I think would continue to hold true, as a spaceship. This holds even further true for independent owner/operators, which the Ragamuffin crews are. Much like well armed traders (who could be privateers at times), privately owned warships and well owned trade ships were always aware of the economics of it all.
SM: Following up on a previous question, while the Ragamuffin are labeled pirates, they never commit a single act of piracy. Is there a message in this labeling, or is it another example of your linguistic facility?
TB: They never self-identify as pirates, you’ll notice. The appellation is given to them by their enemies. Naming something is powerful. The country I live in, the USA, calls rebels in other countries who fight against a country the US doesn’t like Freedom Fighters, and those who fight against countries the US likes, are terrorists. Never forget that Washington and his allies in Revolutionary America were called rebels by the English. So it goes. The Ragamuffins may toy with the illegal side of things, but they’re far from pirates.
SM: Ragamuffin contains an exciting but unusual chase scene in an orbital habitat backed up by hard physics. How did you construct this scene? Are there any hard science science fiction novels you admire?
TB: I admire the hard SF writers who have the technical skill and genius to pull off the big ideas that they do. I love, loved Arthur C. Clarke growing up, as well as Robert Forward and others. The fact that I could contribute a bit of a hard SF scene, one that I hadn’t seen done before, was a particularly point of pride for me in this book. It was my favorite scene to write.
SM: In your first novel, a continent hangs in the balance (to coin a phrase.) In your sophomore outing, the survival of all of humanity is at stake. What next?
TB: Hah, there’s nowhere to go but down from here now, right? In the second novel the survival of aliens and their place in the galaxy are at stake, that would be the larger piece. This third novel is my lighter-than-air novel. Set on a Venusian planet, in the air with floating cities, airship battles, and zombies. Again, I’m riffing off many of the tropes and pulp I do so love and admire. In Crystal Rain we looked at one planet in this panoply I created, Ragamuffin toured you around it’s periphery, and in Sly Mongoose, number three, we’ll pull back down to a whole new planet and linger there. So far I’ve had the most fun writing this third one.
TB: I can’t put a finger on it. I think I’m just enjoying the setting, the elements I want to use just fall into place easier in this book.
SM: For better or worse, you’ve been labeled a Young Turk. Do you see any similar concerns, motifs, interests, etc among your generation, for want of a better word, of writers?
TB: I wish I were intelligent enough to point out a singular motif. I think that will be for readers and critics to nail down for sure. My instinct is that many of us are certainly doing our best to capture a lot of gosh wow fun. I think of Jay Lake’s clockwork punk, and Chris Roberson’s high space opera fun, or Scalzi’s revisioned military SF. Someone said neo-pulp, and I like the sound of that. But the truth is so many of us are doing so many different things. It’s a tremendous time to be reading right now, there is an explosion of cool talent writing in the field right now.