Sunday, December 4, 2016

Flies In The Soup: Ann Leckie

An Interview with Ann Leckie


By Chris Large (First Appeared in Aurealis #86)

Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a lunch lady and a recording engineer. She also happens to be the author of a little book called Ancillary Justice, which won not only a Hugo, but a Nebula and an Arthur C. Clarke Award as well. In 2014, her second book, Ancillary Sword was met with equal praise. Now, with the release of the third instalment in her Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Mercy, Ann speaks with Chris Large about perspective, the value of a good cup of tea, and most importantly of all, those pesky Presger and why we don’t see more of them.

Hello Ann, and welcome to Aurealis. It’s great to have you here.

Thanks! I'm glad to be here!

As a thought exercise, the lack of gender cues in your Imperial Radch series can be a difficult concept to deal with at first. How have you found reader’s reactions to this device?

I have been really surprised at some reactions, and have come to see it as a kind of Rorschach test. Some people read it as the Radch being somehow femininely oriented, some have read it as a book entirely about women, and some have claimed to know what genders various characters are. I think my favourite was a reviewer who said that they could tell that all the romantic/sexual pairings were heterosexual. I still kind of wonder how they could manage that. But hey, once a book is out there, that interaction between the book and the reader is its own thing, and not something I need to get in the middle of, right?

It's been really, really interesting, though, to see the variety of reactions to the way I handled gender.

I’ll interpret that as in invitation to share. Reading your first book Ancillary Justice hurt my brain a little in the beginning, as I found myself unconsciously searching for indicators of gender and for visual quirks in order to identify various characters. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that few would be forthcoming. Once I managed to get over it, I think the mystery increased my enjoyment of the book. Is this a common reaction?

I think it is! It's one I've seen a fair amount. And it makes sense--we're so used to assigning gender to people on the instant, and to assuming a certain set of characteristics go with a given gender, that we don't really  notice it until it's made obvious. I've found it really interesting how difficult it is for some readers to picture characters without knowing their gender--I don’t describe characters any less than I have in these books than, say, my short fiction, but I never got that complaint about my short fiction. I find that really interesting. Definitely something to think about.


In Ancillary Mercy Breq (who was once a segment of an AI) consciously limits her ability to draw upon the vast amounts of information Mercy of Kalr can provide her, but for much of the previous novels she makes full use of her capacity to examine situations from all angles. It must be difficult to catch every facet Breq might be exposed to. How do you address the issue of perspective as an author?

That very issue paralyzed me for a long time. How to convey that kind of point of view? That would have to be a flood of information, and how could I possibly write that? Eventually I decided that I didn't actually have to do that. No fiction really tells you everything--it just tells you what you need to know to understand the story. So I settled on conveying just what I needed to for the reader to (I hoped) get the effect I was after. But I did still have to work very carefully--I wanted it to be consistent, and believable. I mean, to the extent that a being like Breq is believable to begin with!

Okay, I’m gonna have to ask this question. I love your books, but what is it with tea? Is it just the obvious historical connection with brewed beverage-sipping imperials, or is there more to it than that? Because if I drank even half the amount of tea Breq consumed in a day, I’d spend a heck of a lot of time in the bathroom.

What, don't you like tea?

Well, I’m a coffee drinker myself but I don’t mind the odd cup of camomile at the end of the day.

I'm kidding. Yes, tea does in fact contain compounds that will make you have to pee, more than if you just drank the same amount of water. I've heard it said it's the caffeine, but honestly I think the effect is much stronger with tea than with coffee, and coffee generally has way more caffeine. I'm pretty sure theobromine is a suspect here too.

But I also suspect there's some acclimation involved – that is, if you drink a lot of tea and/or coffee every day the effects aren't so noticeable. Here in the US, some folks drink a pretty spectacular amount of iced tea, particularly in the summer, and seem to do okay. And to be honest, I drink about half the amount of tea Breq consumes in a day! And I do not spend all that much time in the bathroom.  Heck, I might drink more, considering I generally use a mug that holds 18 or 20 fluid ounces (US), generally fill it with 14-16 ounces at a go, and often have two or three mugs of tea a day. Partly I drink as much as I do because, yes, I drink iced tea in the summer (on top of that first couple cups of hot tea in the morning). But also, I bought a lot of different kinds of tea during the process of researching for Sword, and if I only had one cup a day the Sun would die of old age before I cut my inventory down to manageable levels.

But I don't think Breq is drinking half-litre mugs of tea. She's drinking bowls of tea--much smaller than my favourite big mug with the squid on it.

There are also some contexts in which consumption of lots of caffeine is just part of how you do things. I remember touring an old (WW2) aircraft carrier and at one point in, I think, Navigation, the tour guide said something like, "Now behind me is the most important part of all of this," and it was, of course, the equipment for making coffee.

The tea in the story doesn't come so much from its connection with Earth Imperialist history as it does from CJ Cherryh's Foreigner books. It began as a deliberate nod to those books, though of course its taken on a life of its own in the context of the Radch.

I honestly didn’t think we’d end up comparing peeing habits in this interview, but I guess since I asked the question, I should be prepared for the answer! So, keeping on-topic, have you thought of marketing a Daughter of Fishes tea brand? It would be fantastic to sip on a hot cup of Fishes while reading the books…

I have thought of it! It would be awesome. But I'm not sure I'd know where to start. And the currently existing equivalent teas are the sorts that already have their own names and histories, and my blanking that out to add my own fictional ones seems weird to me.

There are Ancillary themed teas in existence, though! Adagio teas (http://www.adagio.com) lets you make custom blends from a pre-set list of available ingredients, and then lets you share links to your blends so other people can buy them. There's a long, long list of fan-inspired teas there! And I made some for Imperial Radch, just because once I knew I could, I had to. I think shipping outside the US is pretty expensive, though.

I laughed out loud at Presger Translator Zeiat’s antics in Ancillary Mercy. Not only was Zeiat hilarious at times, she also brought a separate, and novel perspective to the book. Can you tell us a little about your approach to her and to the Presger in general?

Hah, I'm glad you liked Translator Zeiat! I enjoyed writing Dlique so much, and was so sad when I realized she couldn't be onstage long. I consoled myself with the future arrival of Zeiat.

The Presger probably wouldn't retain their mystery or remain convincingly threatening if I brought them onstage, or explained too much about them. So the Presger Translators are intermediaries that let me show the reader aliens while still keeping them sort of human-seeming. And I wanted the Presger Translators to be off-kilter in a way that could be amusing or threatening, depending. Once I'd decided that, I figured I also wanted to have as much fun with them as I could.

Ancillary Mercy answers many questions, but leaves some fairly important issues unresolved. Clearly this is deliberate, but is it deliberate in the “Oh, well, life goes on and not everything has an end,” sense? Or are you leaving a few doors open for later exploration?

In terms of intention, it's meant in a "life goes on" sort of way. It is remarkably convenient, though, no? And this universe is large enough that there's plenty of room for nearly anything I'd like to do in the future, while I still take advantage of all the construction work I've already done.

Now that Ancillary Mercy is out and Breq’s story has been told, is Ann Leckie taking a well-earned rest? Or do you have another project that’s been simmering away in the background to be getting on with?

I'm under contract for two more books. They won't be Breq books--as you've noted, Mercy closes that story out. But they'll certainly be set somewhere in that same universe. Like I said, there's lots of room there to play.

I'm in the planning stages of that next book now, and hopefully I'll start writing it soon. I also hope to be able to do a few short fiction pieces, just because I haven't in a while and short fiction is a lot of fun.

  


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Flies in the Soup: Thoraiya Dyer


Interview: Thoraiya Dyer

By Chris Large

Australian author Thoraiya Dyer spoke with me about her award-winning short story Wine, Women and Stars, her recent three book deal with Tor, the purpose of writing awards, and her no-holes-barred determination to put words to page. This interview first appeared in Aurealis #84.


Welcome back to Aurealis Thoraiya, and a huge congratulations on winning your third Aurealis Award at the 2015 ceremony. You now have two awards for fantasy and a third for science fiction. In your own words you were ‘a bit weepy’ when you accepted the 2015 gong. What does it mean to you to win awards for your writing?

I guess it depends on how confident you’re feeling in your skills at the time. I’ve been writing short fiction for a while now but also, in the background, I’ve been writing novels. The reason I was so weepy about that particular award was because last year my husband lost his job and the bank took our house, so we were forced to move.

It was all very traumatic and I was asking myself, “What am I doing?” I was thinking, “I should be working as a veterinarian. I should be making money and contributing to the household budget.” I was at the point where I was about to chuck it all in and that’s why I was so emotional about winning that award. I’d been asking myself every day, “Is it time to stop this now? Is it ever going to make any money for me?”

What I said in my acceptance speech was a repetition of something Gillian Polack had said to me on a previous occasion: “We give these out so you don’t quit.” And that’s exactly what those short fiction awards have done for me. They’ve kept me going. I haven’t quit. And now I’ve finally sold a novel!


That’s right! Good things have come your way. But when you sit down to write a story like Wine, Women and Stars, you’re not thinking about winning an award or a novel deal. What is your process for writing short fiction?

It usually starts in science magazines and online articles. I think for that particular story I’d been reading about solid metal fuel in cars and I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if you could put that into a human?” I didn’t write that one to spec. It’s different when you see submission guidelines for Defying Doomsday or something and you think, “What’s a really good disability story I could write to do with the apocalypse?” or whatever the guidelines are. I didn’t think about where I was going to send Wine, Women and Stars until after it was done.

It’s interesting that you’ve talked about Wine, Women and Stars in terms of the science of altering somebody’s physiology in order to accommodate space travel, because that’s not what I took away from the story at all. I recall a woman at the top of her game who comes to an understanding that her lifelong ambition of travelling to the stars will not come to fruition and who, over the course of the story, embarks upon a far more personal journey.

Yeah, well, if you can take a good idea that’s been in your head for a while that’s a plot idea and mash that in with a character or motivation that’s been percolating, that can make a great story.

In this case I wanted to convey the idea that you can be the best that you can be at something, but external factors like your age, or the situation, or just the luck of the draw are going to have a strong influence on how your life turns out.

Obviously you’ve had a lot of success with your writing. Do you feel that women writing in the science fiction and fantasy field in Australia face barriers to having their voices heard? 

I was very lucky to have entered the field at a time when the gender imbalance was being addressed. I think if I’d started writing twenty years ago it might have been a different story.

My first piece of short fiction was published in 2008 and within eighteen months of that I’d had an invitation to have a collection published with an excellent Australian small press. But the reason that Twelfth Planet Press was releasing those collections in the first place was to correct a historical imbalance. It was lucky for me but there were other women who had collections come out in that series who’d been writing for thirty years, so their experience would be very different to mine.

Have there been barriers for me? Particularly with fantasy, I don’t think there have been any at all. I do wonder sometimes about the gap between succeeding with my short fantasy fiction and succeeding with my short science fiction but there’s so little science fiction being published in Australia right now, the sample size is difficult to gauge.

You’ve recently been offered a fantastic three-book deal with Tor for a series called Titans Forest. I can only imagine the jealousy of your writing peers. I don’t even write novels and I’m jealous as hell.

Well, not writing novels is a bit of a hindrance to getting a book deal.

So I have no reason whatsoever to feel jealous but I am anyway. What will this deal mean for you and for your writing career?

What it means is that I can keep writing for a start. Like I said, I was that close to throwing it all in. This means I can pay off some pretty serious bills. No one’s going to come repossess my car. That is a very important outcome for me. Apart from all that it’s my dream come true. I’ve been going to Galaxy Bookshop in Sydney since I was a teenager and making a little space on the shelf and saying, “That’s where my books will be one day.”

That turned out to be the wrong spot since I got married and changed my name, BUT I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I stopped for a while when people said to me, “You’re gonna need a ‘real’ job to fall back on.” So I got my veterinary degree. But good things come to those who wait. I have written many, many novels. This is not my first by a long shot.

I first heard the deal was going to happen a while back when I was visiting my aunt in the Blue Mountains. My agent had been updating me on progress with the negotiations by email. So I woke up and checked my email one morning and YES!

Of course I needed someone there with me who knew who Tor was, because I’m just like, “I GOT A DEAL WITH TOR!” But my aunt, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t read science fiction or fantasy so I rang my husband and told him and he was excited for me.

And how instrumental was your agent at Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency in securing the deal?

My agent there is Evan Gregory. He’s been doing this for a while now so he’s a little more blasé than me I think.  Two of the books he put on submission for me were not bought, so I’m grateful to him for sticking with me.


Can you give us some idea of what we can expect from this trilogy?

Okay, so there’s just this really big forest. Think your average rainforest with trees averaging around forty metres and increase that to hundreds of metres tall. There are people living in the canopy of this forest in a mighty city with a pantheon of gods. They don’t really know what’s below. Nobody goes down there.
I wanted to have an ‘East meets West’ feel to it. I also had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in mind when I was world-building the city. The gods can be reincarnated into human bodies so your body could be inhabited by a god and you’d be in charge of the birds, or the wind, or whatever you’re the god of, and your job is also to maintain this invisible barrier which prevents the demons rising up from below.

So the character I will introduce readers to in the first book is Unar. Her sister has fallen down there so Unar’s quest to find out what’s going on below is basically my first book. And the Titans themselves… I’m going to be a little secretive about them until about book three.

I know for a fact you love to work as much real-world science as possible into your science fiction world-building. Do you take a similar approach to your fantasy worlds? Or will you embrace the freedom fantasy writing presents and create wildly imagined environments and societies?

I’m a bit picky that way. I get really annoyed if I’m reading a fantasy novel and the ecosystem doesn’t make sense. I really struggled with this book to make it more fun and less pedantic. So ordinarily if I saw...I don’t know… quolls and cats in the same book, I’d say, “That’s ridiculous. They fill the same ecological niche.”  So with my rainforest story I’ve just tried to chuck that control freakiness out the window and put all the fun things in together and not worry too much about whether they would all occur in nature in the same world.

Right now you’re talking about your book in the singular. How much of the series have you written to date?

I have written one book. I have something like ten months each to write the second and third instalments which is great because that’s about how long it takes me. I don’t have a release date yet so I’m not sure what the plan is there.

I don’t know a lot of details. I’m still in the happy, floaty world of, “Oh, it’s going to come out sometime… It’ll have a cover…” But in reality I don’t know anything yet.

 You’re joking about the cover right now but a cover is almost as important as the writing. When a book’s sitting on a shelf, often all anyone has to go on is the cover.

Ah, yes, but have you ever seen a bad cover on a Tor book?

…Actually no.

I’ve seen bad covers but I don’t think I’ve seen any bad covers on Tor books. I feel I can trust them with that.

Very good point. Now you said earlier that you write your short stories and novel-length manuscripts concurrently. Will that continue now that there’s actual money on the table?

I’ve never had a real deadline before so I’m a bit scared about that. I probably won’t write any more short fiction until I have books two and three at least drafted. My normal pattern is to write the first draft of a novel, then put it away and write short stories for a month. Then I’ll take the novel out and do another draft and put it away again. I usually do about three drafts before sending it to my agent.

I don’t have any short stories left in the draws but some of the stories I’ve sold just in the last few months are not due out for another year or two so you might not notice much of a difference. But for now time management is definitely an issue. When I was working as a vet, I was working 7am to 7pm shifts sometimes and doing emergency after-hours work. It took me five years to write one novel when I was working like that. I’d take a week off when I could and go hide in the Blue Mountains with my aunt and I’d go for it, so it can be done. But it’s just so lovely of my husband to support me and allow me to write a novel in ten months rather than five years.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Flies in the Soup: John Scalzi Part 2

 Interview: John Scalzi
Part 2
By Chris Large


Interview first appeared in Aurealis #82.

Welcome back John. At the moment your new book Lock In, [discussed in the last issue] is a standalone novel. Are you considering writing more in this world? Or is this it?

No! I’d be happy to write more in this world if there was a desire from my publisher and from my audience. I don’t ever write anything but standalone novels. Old Man’s War was a standalone novel. I wrote that one book, right? And then it took off and my editor said, “You need to write another one,” and gave me some money.

I said “Okay. I see how this works.” That’s how Old Man’s War became a series. Android’s Dream was supposed to be a series. I’d signed a contract for a second book but when I started writing it, it was terrible so I stopped doing that and wrote something else. So Lock In is currently a standalone book but if my publisher comes to me and says, “Yeah, I want you to write the second instalment.” [I’d write it]. In fact I have an idea that I’m ready to start going with. It really depends on sales and the level of interest. Another factor is that at the moment it’s optioned by Legendary Television, a production company here in the United States. And if they manage to get it onto TV, there will be sequels.

Game of Thrones, here we come. So you have Old Man’s War, Redshirts and Lock In television shows in development right now. You’re an executive producer on each of those projects. What does that mean? Do you have any leverage? Can you say, “No! That writing’s rubbish. Go do it again!” Is that how it works?

The title of executive producer can mean many things. It can be an extra credit that entitles you to more money, and they expect nothing else from you. Or it can mean you’re expected to be on the set, offering perspective, possibly writing or whatever. All three of these are pre-green-lit, which means we still need to get the full go-ahead from the studios. So at this point I’ve met with the script-writers, I’ve spoken to them about the stories, spoken to the other producers and in some cases I’ve seen initial drafts of the scripts and given them notes. So there has been a fair amount of involvement. When and if they get green-lit, then the question becomes how much more involvement will I have? And how much more involvement do they want me to have? Some of it will be contractually obligated.

If I’m going to be paranoid about it, and go like, “They’re destroying my art!” they can’t cut me completely out of the loop. It is contractually impossible for them to do that. But at the same time that means that if one of them goes into production I will need to play an active role. But how will I manage that with all the other things I need to do, like writing books and the other projects I have lined up? That will be very interesting. At the end of the day a lot of decisions will be made by other people and sometimes I’ll agree with them and sometimes I won’t, and that will just be the nature of the beast. At the very least, if I think they’re going to do something wrong I can say, “I think that’s a really bad idea.” And if it turns out to be a bad idea I can then say, “I told you so.” And if it turns out to be a good idea I’ll say, “I never said that was a bad idea. I said that was a great idea!”

Okay, so I guess this will be a tricky one. Which of the three would you most like to see green-lit by a studio?

I’ve got to be honest with you and I’m gonna say I have no preference. I was having a meeting recently with some producers about a different thing entirely and they asked me the same question. “Which one do you like the most?”

And I said, “I like the one that has the best chance of getting made. Whichever one of the three it is, that’s the one I will love. ” I like all of the books, obviously. From a practical point of view it doesn’t matter which of them makes it onto TV. As soon as it does, that particular book will likely sell tonnes and tonnes and tonnes and then the other books will also see an uptick. So it doesn’t matter which one makes it. It doesn’t matter which jackpot I hit is what it comes down to. If any of the three make it, then that is my favourite. If it’s all three, then that’s good too.

I was reading a ten point deconstruction of the Star Wars universe you wrote back in 2009 –

Was it the Design Fails piece?

Yes, exactly. And in one of the points you made, you said: “Lightsabers need a cross-guard! This is ridiculous. Everyone’s getting their hands cut off!” Now [with the release of the first Star Wars VII trailer] we see it’s actually happened, are you going to own that call? Are you going to stand up and say, “That’s a Scalzi!”?

I saw people really getting worked up about the lightsaber cross-guard. Saying things like, “That’s just not safe!”  And I was like, “And… They were before?” I mean one slice and there goes your hand. Like, “Arrrghh!” Why did Luke lose his hand? Because he did not have a cross-guard. Now, that particular cross-guard that we’ve seen, do I think that is practical? Not necessarily, but at the same time I still don’t think it’s a bad idea. When I saw that cross-guard I said, “Finally! Someone gets it!” That particular cross-guard may not be the best one, or it might be. I mean, we actually have to see it in practice. We only saw like two seconds of it, right? We don’t have nearly enough information to go by.



Although the one thing that I did think was that it seems like it would be really easy to stick yourself. But that’s a problem with lightsabers in general. People say “Oh! It would be so cool to have a lightsaber!” But 99.9% of you – the first time you swing that thing you’re gonna give yourself a lobotomy. You’re gonna lose an arm. You’re gonna lose a leg. You are not coordinated enough.

I think that’s actually part of Star Wars lore that only Jedi and Sith can really use a  lightsaber because they’re a dangerous weapon! They’ll cut through anything so you have to have a Jedi’s abilities just so you don’t cut your own head off. In one of the prequel movies we saw the tiny little padawans in training and I was like, “I hope these are low-powered lightsabers; that the worst that they get is a second degree burn. Otherwise you are going to literally cut your padawans down to a small number very quickly.” I mean, think about when you were 5 years old. Could you be trusted with a sharp implement?

Oh, no way.

So what I’m saying is the cross-guard is still a good idea. It remains to be seen whether that design implementation is the best one.

Okay, just one last question. There are probably only two people in the world I’d ask this question – the other being JJ Abrams [note to self: must get in touch with Mr Abrams] – As the person who quite literally wrote the book on redshirts (and won a Hugo for it), who would win the stormtrooper V redshirt smack-down? It’s a quandary for fans because stormtroopers, when they shoot, can’t seem to hit anything – yet redshirts always die.

There’s an internet meme that says, “Stormtroopers fire at the redshirts and miss every shot, but the redshirts die anyway.” The fundamental problem for the redshirts is that they are designed to die. That is their karma. That is their thing. So when confronted with the stormtrooper? The stormtroopers might miss. The redshirts might defeat the stormtroopers one way or another – but the redshirts would still then die. So it really wouldn’t matter what happened, at the end of the day the purpose of a redshirt is to die in service to the plot. So they would lose.

So even if they beat the stormtroopers, they would still all die?

The stormtroopers would not win! That’s important. It’s not that the stormtroopers would win. It is that the redshirts would lose.

And on that note I call this interview done. I’m not sure John gave us a truly definitive answer to that last, and possibly most important question, but at least it was an answer from someone who should know. I heartily thank Mr Scalzi for indulging my geekiness and urge anyone who hasn’t read Lock In to do so without reading any reviews, forums or spoilers such as the ones hidden within Part 1.5 of this interview, beforehand.  Don’t read them. Resist temptation. Read the book. You won’t be disappointed.

Flies in the Soup: John Scalzi Part 1.5

Interview: John Scalzi
Part 1.5 
By Chris Large


WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS OF EPIC PROPORTIONS

John, in your latest book, Lock In, remotely controlled robotic bodies called threeps are developed to give those suffering the ‘locked in’ form of Haden’s Syndrome a greater degree of freedom. It basically allows sufferers who are trapped in their own bodies to interact with the world, but the long game of the corporations is for the technology to be used to give older people more freedom of mobility. Do you see this as humanity simply trying to avoid getting old? Or are you suggesting this type of technology could be the next step in our evolution?

I don’t want to use the phrase “next step in our evolution”. I think that’s a loaded phrase. But say if you were 75 years old and your mobility had been compromised simply by being 75. Your knees are shot, you might be overweight, or you might have a bad back or anything that makes it more difficult for you to do the things you used to do. Then you get offered the ability to have this robotic body that basically allows you to go around like you’re a twenty year old. Why wouldn’t you do that? You wouldn’t necessarily use it every day, but if a group of friends wanted to go mountain climbing in Yosemite, would you take the 75 year old body, or would you take the android body? If you get the full sensory experience from the android body I’ll take that and stand at the top of Half Dome and go “Yep, here I am.” Because you are not limited to what your body can do.

For me it’s a no brainer that anyone would want to use this technology if it was possible to use it. I don’t see it as evolution any more than glasses are evolution. In the book, the reason the Threeps are used exclusively by the Hadens is that in order to use it you need to get a neural network and brain prosthesis which is highly invasive. When I was world building I kinda thought of it like this: liability would be insane because you put this stuff in someone’s brain and what if something goes completely haywire? Your company’s going to be sued. Whereas somebody who is already locked into their own body is willing to accept that risk. So that was part of my world building as to why one group would have this technology but not others, but eventually other groups are going to want that opportunity and the companies that are addressing the Haden market would want to address the rest of the market because the rest of the market is so much larger. It’s not just the Haden’s sufferers. It’s everyone because everyone gets old.

Moving on to your Lock In protagonist: Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane, Chris’ skin colour isn’t an issue for most of the book. As we discussed earlier on, if something doesn’t need to be described, why describe it, right? Chris is suffering from Haden’s Syndrome and is locked into his body but then a third of the way through the book it becomes clear that he’s black. We also said earlier that the reader will make assumptions if things aren’t spelled out for them and I made the default assumption of white male.

I wanted Chris’ parents to be interesting and in this particular case it just seemed the way to go. I didn’t really give it too much thought in terms of building it. I knew I wanted Chris’ dad to be an athlete. I knew I wanted to reflect the trend here in the United States in terms of who marries who. So I didn’t think that 40 years into the future anyone was going to think anything of it one way or the other. The funny thing to me actually, is that we’re talking about Chris, and you’re talking about Chris as a he.

Yes, I was. And you know what? You totally got me. I did not even question it [Chris’ gender] until the end. This is going to contain massive spoilers and I don’t know how we’re going to put this into the interview, but I read the protagonist as a white guy, right? But then when I went onto a forum after reading Lock In and was asked if I read Chris as a girl or a guy, I was like “What? No! He did not just do that!” 

What was really fun about that was that I knew when I was going in that I was going to do it that way because having someone who was a Haden, it was not going to be an obvious issue. I knew people would apprehend Chris as the Threep, not Chris the dude, or Chris the woman. It was Chris the Threep. That being the case there was no reason to specifically gender the character and I decided before I started writing that I would not gender Chris. 

I did it for a couple of reasons. First, in the context of the world I was creating it was something that could be done. Second was the writing challenge of “How far can I get away with this?” It helped that Chris is written in first person so Chris does not have to reveal gender one way of another. 

People’s apprehension of Chris is not going to be “He did this,” or “She did this,” so that made it a little bit easier. But really I just wanted to see if it could be done and whether people would pick it up, because that was part of the writing challenge for me. Dropping in the fact that Chris’ dad is black and his mum is white, so he’s actually bi-racial, would make people question their own assumptions because they’ve been thinking of Chris as a white dude because that’s the default so I knew that would be a jostle. I didn’t necessarily want Chris’ gender to be a jostle. I didn’t want that to be something people thought about until they closed the book and they went online to discuss it with other people and it was brought up by someone else. And I’m really happy about the fact that not only did I get it past a lot of readers, I got it past my editor! And when he read it he was like “Oh, this is great! Blah blah blah blah blah.”

And I was like, “Great! What did you think of Chris?”

And he said “Well, you know, he was a really good character. It was really interesting what you had him do.”

And I said, “Well, why do you think Chris is a he?”

And Patrick was like, “Oh! My God!”

Well, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one.

You should not feel bad. I had about twenty first line readers and really only one of them said, “Hey, I noticed that you’re not using pronouns. Is there a reason for that?” So there was really only the one person who noticed it. I mean my wife, when she read it, she naturally slotted Chris as a woman. And it’s been interesting to me how the breakdown goes. 

Almost all men see Chris as a dude, right? Half of women see Chris as a woman and half as a man. Part of that speaks to what our defaults are. I don’t describe a lot of my characters, how they look, unless it has a very specific bearing on the story so there’s no reason they couldn’t be whatever racial composition you wanted them to be. But almost everybody defaults to white, regardless of what race they are because that’s what we’re all so used to. So not describing people is not necessarily the same as having [diverse] representation, right? In this case the reason I did it this way was because I wanted to – in a very non-judgemental, not get-on-your-soapbox, way – have people think about what their implicit biases are after they’ve enjoyed the story and invested themselves in it and have it be non-confrontational. I’m not pushing them to think a certain way. You can get all the way through it without thinking about it one way or the other, and then you can talk about it. People ask me, “Well, is Chris a man or is Chris a woman?” and it’s like I literally do not know.

It’s entirely possible that Chris is neither. Chris could be intersex for example. Or, alternately, because Chris has spent an entire life using a threep, a lot of the gender expectations that are implicitly put upon us would not be put on Chris, because no one’s going to necessarily put a cute little pink sun bonnet on a threep or say that a threep can only play with particular toys or whatever. All the cultural baggage to do with masculinity and femininity won’t necessarily apply to someone in Chris’s situation.

So what that means is, let’s suppose for the sake of this particular discussion that Chris is female. Chris will not have the same gender pressures that a typical woman would. She would not have to conform to gender roles or to sexual roles. I mention in the book that Chris had a romantic relationship in college, right? I don’t specify with whom, but even if Chris was a woman and had a relationship with another Hadan who was also a woman, would they think about it in the same sort of gender/sexual sphere that the rest of us would, particularly when they live their entire life in a world where gender roles are not necessarily imprinted in stone?

One of the really interesting reviews said that I was just assuming that all the Hadens and all the threeps would have completely blank slates in terms of culture and gender and sexual and that wouldn’t always be the case and I think that’s absolutely accurate. So this what I’m thinking about when I’m writing but if this stuff starts oozing all over the story it’s not necessarily a good thing because fundamentally I want people to enjoy the story and not feel like they’re being lectured to, or that I’m saying “Hey! Look at this great utopian vision of gender and sexuality I’ve created!” Because... it’s not. So all that is there for people to explore later. Stuff about gender and sexuality. Stuff about disability culture, which is a whole other topic. It’s all there to be part of the world. It’s all there to be explored and unfolded and discussed if you want. But if all you want is the murder mystery you can go straight ahead with that.

Just to get back to the threeps, in the world of Lock In they don’t have any super-human abilities. In fact they’re quite fragile. If they get shot, they fall over like anyone would. From the point of view of the FBI, or on the policing side, why didn’t you give them any special abilities like armour plating, or speed, or strength?

I think there were a couple of issues. The first was you want them to be non-threatening. They don’t constitute a robot uprising because they don’t have any particular special abilities. But it’s also the simple fact that the majority of people using threeps were not born into a lock in situation. They were used to having human bodies. I think people underestimate the problems you would have adjusting to a body that was substantially more powerful than the ones they already have. The fact of the matter is, if you used to pick up a can...

*John picks up a soda can from his desk.*

Just by using an action like this. If you gave me a body that was four times as strong, I make the same action and this happens...

*John crushes the soda can with his bare hands like a boss*

Sure okay.

So basically you’d have a bunch of people with these bodies who would be buying trouble. We’d be giving them bodies whose range of strength and agility and everything else that does not match what they’re used to, or what is the norm. It sounds kinda ridiculous but it’s a user interface issue. Take a guy who has driven a Toyota Corolla his whole life and put him into a Lamborghini and tell him go as fast as he can, but then here comes the curb. You know what’s gonna happen to that car. It’s gonna go straight into the wall. You can’t just put people into Lamborghinis. That’s what super-strength or super-agility would be. They’d be a danger to themselves and a danger to others. So that’s why you have the Threeps being – aside from being non-threatening – why you try to replicate the human range of abilities.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Flies in the Soup - John Scalzi

John was the second fly to fall in my soup. He's probably my all-time second-fave sci-fi writer after Douglas Adams, and since I can't talk to him anymore, chatting with Mr Scalzi was a big deal for me. Aurealis split the interview into 3 parts, the second of which was published on SoundCloud, but I'll load a transcript here as Part 2.



Interview: John Scalzi
Part 1 
By Chris Large

 
(Love this Picture)

Hugo award winning author, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2010-2013), feminist and all-round super-powered good-guy John Scalzi spoke with me in this three-part interview in early 2015. Check out Part 1 below, originally published in Aurealis #81.



John’s latest book, Lock In, is a near-future murder-mystery set against a backdrop of a world ravaged by a disease known as Haden’s Syndrome. Haden’s victims suffering from ‘lock in’ find themselves unable to move or communicate with those around them and must instead utilise specifically adapted technology. I asked John about his inspiration for the story and more broadly about his writing style and philosophy.

Welcome to Aurealis John, I really admire your writing style which comes across as sparse and uncluttered. Does that come to you naturally in the first draft?

I really don’t write drafts. I write and then edit as I go along and when I’m done, I send it off so what you see is the first draft. But I think actually it’s just the way that I write. Most of what I do is heavy on dialogue. The dialogue itself is sparse in description. If you’re talking to someone, unless you’re describing a specific thing, [description of it] just doesn’t come up and unless it has something to do with the story it’s better to leave it undescribed. Give that to the reader to imagine.

There are a lot of readers who really dislike my style because they want their six-page descriptions of beasts, and what people are wearing. I have no criticism of that. People like what they like and I’m a big fan of giving people what they want. At the same time, I find description very boring to write and if I spent a lot of time writing it I think it would become clear to people that I was bored. So yes, it’s naturally part of my writing style. It’s easy for me to do it that way. That said, the things that you find easy to do can become a crutch, so every once in a while I’ll write something that’s heavy on description, just to force myself to do something I wouldn’t typically do.

So you’ll try to take yourself out of your comfort zone?

Yeah, you have to. My comfort zone is dialogue, which is very easy for me to write – and humour. So every once in a while I will intentionally write something different. A good example of that is a novella I wrote several years ago called The God Engines. When people read it they’re like, “Were you in a bad place mentally when you wrote this?” But no, I was actually gleeful when I was writing it because it was fun to do something that I don’t normally do. The whole point of it was to avoid my comfort zone becoming a trap. You don’t want it to become a comfort cage.

And that lack of description you’ve talked about also allows you to be a little deceptive at times, doesn’t it?

I think that’s possible. I mean I certainly have left things out that later a reader will assume I’ve brought up, but actually they have just filled in with their natural bias. When that happens I think that’s kinda fun and interesting for both of us.

You seem to enjoy the body-swap theme, or the idea of taking a consciousness out of a body and putting it somewhere else, whether it’s into a machine, another body, or some kind of human/alien hybrid like in Agent to the Stars.

I don’t really think it’s a conscious sort of thing. I don’t dwell on mind-body duality. For one thing, consciousness transfer is something that is still very definitely in the science fiction sphere. We don’t have brain or consciousness transfer as part of our daily lives at this point, so when you use that as an element in a story, you’re definitely writing science fiction. Something that’s very difficult to do these days, particularly if you’re writing near-future science fiction, is to keep up with technology. Technology advances in leaps and bounds and sometimes the things you write end up being overtaken.

Sure, like Star Trek, right? So many things we have now have already surpassed what they had in those shows.

Yeah. You look at Captain Kirk’s communicator and you’re like, “That’s adorable. All you can do with that is make phone calls?” My cell phone is so much more complex than Kirk’s communicator it’s not even funny.

So consciousness transfer is still something that is very definitely science fiction. That said, I don’t think the consciousness transfer is the interesting thing, but more what it allows you to do. In the case of Old Man’s War it really was the most efficient way to get old people into new bodies. I didn’t see the value in injecting old people with chemicals or nanobots to strengthen their old bodies.

Then for Lock In [John’s latest book, released in late 2014] very simply I wanted to posit a disease that was terrifying. For most people, being locked into their body would be terrifying. But I also wanted the people locked into those bodies to be able to participate in the outside world. That’s where using the threeps [remote robotic bodies] – which is not technically consciousness transfer, it’s really like driving a very cool car – comes in.

You refer to yourself as a feminist on your blog and in various forums, and your books are often structured to portray gender equality.

When I say that I’m a feminist it’s the very basic belief that women have the same rights, responsibilities, obligations and opportunities that men have – or they should. And I’m also very conscious that by saying I’m a feminist there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that, including, “Oh God, here’s another guy saying he’s a feminist, and now he’s going to speak for all women everywhere!” So there’s a lot of stuff that goes with that and I’m very cognisant of it.  At the same time, particularly in the last couple of years, there have been so many people – particularly men – who’ve just lost their minds on the internet about women.

A couple of years ago I wrote quite a lengthy piece on my website about why I did not call myself a feminist because there’s so much intellectual and academic reading and responsibility that comes with that revelation that I am cognisant I don’t have. But the last couple of years have convinced me that someone like myself, who believes in the very simple feminist idea of equality between men and women, and rights, opportunities and obligations, should say so.  Then again, I’m not the world’s best feminist. I still have moments where I show my ass, and people are more than happy to point that out.

Be that as it may [being a feminist] is something that I think it’s important for me to say right now.
With regard to my characters, it’s never been a problem because generally speaking I’m a believer in the philosophy that if you’re going to send a message, use Western Union. That is to say don’t use the fiction to get up on a soap box. It brings the story to a stop and so I’m very careful not to do that. If you believe in equality, and you believe in matters of representation then you’re going to put into your worlds the representation you want to see.

I believe that sometime in the future we will see more women in more roles and so my worlds reflect that. I believe that we will see a wider spread of ethnicity than we do in science fiction literature right now and so I put that in. Here in the United States in the next twenty or thirty years, non-Hispanic whites are going to become less than 50% of representation. It’s not a stretch to imagine that in the future it’s not just going to be straight, white dudes doing all the cool stuff and so it’s not a big deal to put that in. In the Human Division, one of the things that happened was that with the named characters there was 50/50 representation between male and female. I didn’t bring attention to it. The reason I did it wasn’t to say: “Hey, look what I did. Aren’t I awesome?” It was simply to have it there. And for about a year nobody seemed to notice until some dude sent me an email saying “You sure have a lot of women in here.”

I said, “No, it’s actually not a lot. It’s just 50/50.”

As you’ve said, you find humour easy but in your first book, Agent to the Stars, you deal with one of the least funny things ever: a holocaust survivor’s story. Agent to the Stars contains a strong contrast between what is essentially a humorous first-contact story and something which is not funny at all.

I think in that particular case there are two things going on. The fact that you have a dynamic range of material meant that there was the potential for more of an emotional connection. With humour, or with any emotion, if you keep hitting the same note over and over people are eventually going to become tired of it and it’s going to be less effective as you go on.  So if you’re writing in a humorous mode you still need to have those moments of seriousness.


It wasn’t difficult for me to address the Holocaust because, quite honestly, it fit the mode of the story, which is a story about Hollywood. And as everyone knows, if you want an Oscar you go back to World War II. This was joked about in the show Extras. There was an episode with Kate Winslet where she was playing a nun who hides Jews from the Nazis and she says, “Yeah, I’m gonna win an Oscar for this.” And what did she win her Oscar for? She won it for The Reader which is about her being a prison guard at one of the concentration camps. Rarely has the humorous aspect of that situation been so clearly proven in real life.

My character in Agent to the Stars wants to get respect and her way of doing that is to take on this very serious role about the Holocaust, even though this particular character is horribly unsuited to the role. If you have this beach blonde, Californian girl saying “I wanna play a 50 year old Holocaust survivor for this movie,” people see the inherent humour in that and you can use that aspect to build the emotional range of the story. That helps to give you the serious beats that make the humour more successful, and that’s a lot of what humour is. It’s not just the funny bits, right? What makes successful humour is the pacing, is the rhythm. You have to be able to give people those respites, so that’s what talking about the Holocaust, in a very superficial way, did for this particular story.

In your latest book, Lock In, remotely controlled robotic bodies called threeps are developed to give those suffering the ‘locked in’ form of Haden’s Syndrome a greater degree of freedom. It basically allows sufferers who are trapped in their own bodies to interact with the world, but the long game of the corporations is for the technology to be used to give older people more freedom of mobility. Do you see this as humanity simply trying to avoid getting old? Or are you suggesting this type of technology could be the next step in our evolution?


John’s answer to this question, and subsequent questions about Lock In, contain some major spoilers. As someone who read and enjoyed the book immensely, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone so I’ve contained all the major spoilers within Part 2 of the interview, which I’ll post here shortly. You have been warned!