By Mark L. Blackman On the night of Wednesday, November 18, the Fantastic Fiction at KGB Reading Series, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel, presented authors William Gibson and Cat Rambo in YouTube livestreamed readings. This was the Series’ ninth virtual event. (Its longtime venue, the KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village, had shut down due to the pandemic, but the Soviet era-themed dive bar has sporadically reopened with limited capacity, and its fans are invited to help it out with donations.) The current setup, Kressel noted, offers the advantage of allowing readings from writers not living in or visiting New York; both readers were “in” from the West Coast (Rambo lives in Seattle and Gibson Vancouver). It has also enabled a larger audience than could have fit into the bar (at one point, 120 people were watching).
As the evening’s livestream began, Gibson and Rambo schmoozed with Datlow and Kressel about everything from what they were drinking (hydration is important) to the scary Michelin Man, Gene Wolfe’s role at Pringle’s (the logo character is probably based on him), Oreos, and the previous week’s tornado in New York.
The first reader, Cat Rambo, is the author of over 200 stories, among them the novelette Carpe Glitter, which received a Nebula Award earlier this year, and four novels, including the upcoming space opera, You Sexy Thing. She is a past President of SFWA, and, as it happens, was in that position when Gibson was named a Grand Master. She opened with a selection from Carpe Glitter – “seize the glitter.” A woman is cleaning out the home of her eccentric late grandmother (“Carpe glitter” is something the old lady used to say), a former stage magician and a hoarder. It is an inheritance that she chose (to her mother’s disappointment) over cash, excavating and treasure-hunting (a friend has referred to it as “urban archeology”) through rancid furs, piles of multiple copies of magazines with her old notices and her doll collection.
She then read a flash story (“one of my favorite forms”) that ran on Daily Science Fiction, “I Decline.” An old man turns down government-offered technology that can preserve – and even edit out – his memories. (The spoiler is in the title.)
A short break followed.
William Gibson is best known as the creator (or, at minimum, co-creator) of an entire subgenre of speculative fiction, Cyberpunk. He is the author of the award-winning Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, Idoku, Spook Country, and other novels, most recently Agency, a sequel to The Peripheral.
He offered “a blended reading,” selections from the latter two novels, both of which center around “The Jackpot,” a multicausal, slow, androgenic process over 40 years rather than a solitary apocalyptic event, described by one character as “seriously bad shit.” Climate change and too much carbon results in droughts and water shortages, and pandemics that lead ultimately to the death of 80% of everyone (in other words, as we’ve heard too often on the news this year, “a perfect storm”). There is nanotechnology and cheaper energy sources, but the world is run by hereditary oligarchs. The protagonist is reached by a posse from the 22nd century who tell her about it. From Chapter 79 of The Peripheral, “The Jackpot,” he turned to Chapter 75 of Agency, “Jackpot.” The novel is set in an alternate continuum in which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but that, he said, “doesn’t have the effect it might have, doesn’t prevent the Jackpot from happening.” Here too the protagonist is contacted by people from the future. Gibson is currently working on Jackpot, the conclusion of the trilogy.
Datlow described both selections as “greatly depressing reads, but optimistic” somehow. The Peripheral, was published in 2014 and Agency, appeared in early 2020, effectively pre-Covid-19. Trump’s election caused him to rewrite large parts of Agency, but the Coronavirus hasn’t derailed it. Both novels refer to “the pandemics,” plural.
Datlow asked how the writers are faring during the Pandemic. Rambo is staying productive with co-writing sessions, while Gibson has been “doing domestic stuff,” and “watching and reacting, and taking the measure of the fuckedness quotient and applying some of it to Jackpot #3.”
A Q&A with the audience ensued. Asked what classic sf stands up or stands out, Rambo replied that she’d been reading a number of ’70s short stories, particularly from women writers. Gibson cited J.G. Ballard and Brunner (who “got it astonishingly right,” notably Stand on Zanzibar), and we can feel like we’re in 1984. How do they decide the genders of their protagonists? Rambo said that if she didn’t know, she would return to her “D&D roots” and roll dice. Gibson noted that he had male and female protagonists in the same book; there are maybe four female protagonists in Jackpot. When he started out, he consulted Joanna Russ’s circle about handling women characters. Females, he opined, “better comprehend their world.”
What about the current milieu do they find surprising? Rambo finds social media both “horrifying and fascinating.” The only social media Gibson does is Twitter (Rambo also is on Twitter). In a digression, he observed (to laughter) that one thing that we don’t see in zombie apocalyptic fiction in books, movies and tv is people calling zombies a hoax. Kressel likened our polarized world to China Miéville’s The City and the City, with people “literally living in two realities,” pretending the others don’t exist. What are Rambo and Gibson finding to be optimistic about? Rambo likes “the informal nature of things,” and hopes that sf conventions have “a strong virtual component going forward.”
Would Gibson ever write in anyone else’s world? No, he has “never understood the impulse to write fan fiction.” What are their research methods? Gibson “Google[s] blindly,” and Rambo also relies on Google or “a good university library.” She is currently reading Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, and Gibson recommended M. John Harrison’s latest.
After a brief and reluctant cameo by her cat Jack, Datlow concluded by announcing upcoming readers:
December 16: Priya Sharma and Justin Key
January 20, 2021: Lauren Beukes and Usman T. Malik
February 17: Kathleen Jennings and Shveta Thakrar
All dates are the third Wednesday of the month (“come rain or shine or Covid”).
Chris Panatier lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands.
By Chris Panatier: A number of readers have remarked that my debut sci-fi/dystopian novel, The Phlebotomist, has a realistic feel and that many of the events depicted in its pages “could really happen today.” These points may actually undersell the parallels between our current reality and the world of the book. In fact—and this is the subject of a conversation I’ve had with other writers already — we need to up our game if we’re going to present a dystopian vision of the future. The year 2020 has sped up the clock, blurring the line between reality and dystopia such that there is a real possibility that “dystopian” ceases to be a separate genre. They’ll just call it “contemporary fiction.”
Like other authors who want their future stories to be plausible, I extrapolated the present to the future, doing my best to gauge where our trajectory might have us in another forty-seven years. But some elements of the story I didn’t have to extrapolate to at all; they exist today. I just cranked them up a bit. The following are a few examples from the book that were direct extrapolations from our present world.
The concept of media control is hardwired into the DNA of dystopian storytelling, and so my including it was hardly revelatory. However, the timing of this story makes it feel particularly chilling. In The Phlebotomist, all media is controlled by the State. The “state” is ambiguous, as from our main character’s point of view, it is indistinguishable from the blood contractor she works for, a massive conglomerate called Patriot. If you want to watch television, you tune to “the Channel”, which is run by Patriot. The most popular show is called “The Patriot Report”. News is beamed to your ‘touchstone’ (a handheld device provided by Patriot) in the form of “PatrioCasts” which advise of current blood demands, price changes, and any news deemed fit to transmit. By controlling media, the government both manipulates the truth and prevents organized dissent.
The seedlings of state-run media have already sprouted in the United States. Other countries have been there for decades. America has a handful of very powerful media companies and groups that have made it their mission to broadcast “news” that is aligned with government positions or simply to damage the value of facts. The popularity, volume, and intensity of these dispatches threaten to wash other voices out. A fire hose versus a squirt gun. In the world of The Phlebotomist, the fire hose has won out.
Next, there’s the food. In the geographically ambiguous world of The Phlebotomist, there is a mandatory blood draw called “The Harvest.” Those who can manage to give more, earn cash selling extra. Price is dictated by blood type and society has become segregated according to it. But even those who can earn more money because of favorable genetics are relatively poor, and there are a paltry few jobs. Rather than subsidize people’s income in order to allow them to buy necessities, the government, through Patriot, provides food directly with bi-monthly distributions of something called “The Box.” The Box is a literal box containing little more than cheap staples to provide basic nourishment—just enough, really, to keep people alive. If a recipient misses the Harvest, they are removed from The Box program and must fend for themselves.
This idea sounds extreme, I know, but hear me out: I stole it from Donald Trump. Just google the “American Harvest Box”. This was an idea the President of the United States proposed in 2018, and it was a perfect way for me to capture how authoritarian regimes dehumanize their poorer citizenry. Fortunately, Trump’s idea was roundly rejected by just about all stakeholders and hasn’t become part of the American story. Yet.
Lastly, polarization. Today, we stand squarely in the muck of a post-truth world, where people have a hard time discerning what is true and what is false, and where swaths of the citizenry are told that certain groups are coming for their jobs, their homes, their families, and their way of life. This intentional division of the population serves two purposes: one is to make it easier to push a narrative without the necessity of facts to support it; the second is to weaken the citizenry by dividing it. In The Phlebotomist, where the economy is founded upon blood, the government foments paranoia about bloodborne illnesses, making neighbors suspicious, thus pitting one against the other. People spy on their fellow citizens while the state encroaches.
I believe that what makes dystopia attractive to readers is that tinge of fear it transmits; that what the pages contain could happen in real life. And to keep that fear on simmer without boiling over and evaporating, a dystopian vision has to be plausibly tied to our current world. How well does that future vision relate to what we already know? What I did for The Phlebotomist was to take the present and simply nudge it to the brink. My goal was to write believable, (fun!), dystopian adventure.
I just hope it remains fiction.
ABOUT THE PHLEBOTOMIST
In a near future where citizens are subject to the mandatory blood draw, government phlebotomist Willa Wallace witnesses an event that makes her question her whole world…
To recover from a cataclysmic war, the Harvest was instituted to pass blood to those affected by radiation. But this charitable act has led to a society segregated entirely by blood type. Government blood contractor, Patriot, rewards your generous gift based on the compatibility of your donation, meaning that whoever can give the most, gets the most in return.
While working as a reaper taking collections for the Harvest, Willa chances upon an idea to resurrect an obsolete technique that could rebalance the city. But in her quest to set things into motion, she uncovers a horrifying secret that cuts to the heart of everything.
Kathrin Hutson has been writing Dark Fantasy, SFF, and LGBTQ Speculative Fiction since 2000. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Kathrin lives in Vermont with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Brucewillis.
Sleepwater Static, Book Two in the LGBTQ Dystopian SF Blue Helix Series by Kathrin Hutson was released May 26 by Exquisite Darkness Press.
Wyoming’s Sleepwater chapter is on the run, hunted for their ability to spin a beat. With little time to mourn the members they’ve lost, Bernadette Manney takes the group to the one place she swore she’d never see again: the cabin in Hollywood, South Carolina. It’s remote enough to lay low and catch a break, but not for long.
Their beats are condemned as mutations, radical terrorist tactics, and felonies punishable both by and outside the law. Bernadette thought Sleepwater would be safe here, but returning to her Southern roots unleashes more demons than she left behind.
MIKE GLYER: In your Blue Helix series, the condemned mutation that confers special abilities — the beat – almost floats in a colloidal suspension where it comes in contact with the profoundly human stories that you want in the foreground. Instead of a big comic book bang, we see how individuals or families relate and conflict, only with more tools that may or may not help them. The genre elements tend to be pushed to the margins while focus is on the human relationships, romances, family histories and conflicts. What what was it specifically that attracted you to science fiction and fantasy as a setting?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I’ve always been more attracted to science fiction and fantasy as genres in general, and I think that came mostly from my desire as a kid, adolescent, and young adult to escape what was happening around me in my real life. Today, I choose to write in these genre for a few reasons. First, story always comes first. For me, the story is more exciting when I can work with these genre elements (even if they’re pushed to the margins) in order to create that sort of surrealist escapism while still keeping it grounded in what we as readers are all able to identify with – fleshed-out characters and profoundly human stories.
Second, these genres are just so dang fun. With fantasy especially, I get to work with worlds to change them and shape them in whatever way I see fit. As long as it fits the overall story too, of course. With the Blue Helix series, which is all I’ve written in the science fiction genre so far (dystopian and very “light” on the science part), I had to do a lot more research to create this world and these characters than I really have ever done for any of my other work, all of which is fantasy. But I did choose dystopian science fiction very specifically for the Blue Helix series because of what I wanted to say within the broader context of this “condemned mutation” found in my main characters and supporting characters. Originally with Sleepwater Beat, Book 1, I wanted to create an only slightly different world from our reality — a parallel universe, if you will. I believed it was really important to be able to show these parallels between worlds in order to highlight the disparities between marginalized communities and “the majority”. So I looked at these marginalized groups – the LGBTQ community, BIPOC, drug addicts, addiction survivors, victims of emotional and physical abuse, the homeless, the disenfranchised, those struggling with mental illness, disabled peoples, and anyone living on the fringes of society — and used this fictionally marginalized group in the books who have this special-ability mutation to open a window into the injustices, double-standards, and outright ridiculousness of bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. As it turned out, this parallel universe I created and fully intended to be farther in the future (2031 in the Blue Helix series) ended up having so many eerie similarities to what the world and specifically the United States has been experiencing as each book was published. They’ve been called timely and prescient, though I think I ended up giving “the future” too much credit for being farther away than it turned out to be.
MIKE GLYER: These books maintain a wonderful dynamic between characters on the run and rich sense of the location they’re presently in. I saw an author say he starts his stories from a sense of place—where do you start?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I start my stories from a sense of character and really getting inside their heads first. I think this is a lot easier for me to do than starting from a physical location or a sense of place because my “record” for the longest amount of time lived in one house in the last twenty years is two and a half years… and that was just recently reached in my last house in Vermont (my family moved to Colorado this past July, so now I’m starting over). One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned personally through always moving around for most of my life is that I can still be myself and carry everything I am and want to be with me, no matter where I end up. I hope that my characters provide that same feeling of “self” throughout my stories, even when these characters are fleeing across the country from persecution and holing up wherever they can find a roof over their heads for the night. Sometimes even just a car roof. But then when I have the characters down (and they don’t change who they are at the core, even with a different setting – unless it’s part of the story, of course), I get to play with bringing the setting to life almost as much as the people inhabiting it. I’ve lived in four different states in the last eight years – Colorado, South Carolina, California, and Vermont, in that order – and have gotten a decent sense of what each place feels like, what kind of people are found there, and how a physical location can play less or more or just as much of a role in the characters’ experiences as the people around them or the plot itself. But always, characters come first. And the fun lies in choosing how they do or don’t interact with the space around them when it changes.
MIKE GLYER: In The Blue Helix series, the special gifts the characters have in common bring them together because they are persecuted. Would that thing be enough reason to organize together if they were free to express their gifts?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This is a fantastic question. My immediate reaction was actually to think, “Well, it’s common ground. Common interests. Of course we’re drawn to other people like us.” But is that really the reason for gathering with like-minded individuals when we aren’t facing danger, persecution, and hatred simply for personal traits, beliefs, orientation, skin color, age (you name it) that we have no control over whatsoever?
I think there are two different reasons for these characters with “the beat”, who later joined to form the organization Sleepwater, to come together as they do in these series. Before their ability was weaponized, demonized, and relegated to something the rest of the world was told over and over again to fear and hate, yes. Beat-spinners gathered together to listen to each other’s individual abilities and form a sense of community around what made them different. Even when the rest of the world wouldn’t understand or had no idea of what they could do. There’s always a chance that “being different” will give others who fall under “normal” (like there’s even such a thing as “normal” anyway) a reason to taunt, make fun of, villainize, or otherwise act out against us. Take the overused (and sometimes still very real) trope in any YA entertainment media where high school is involved. We have “the nerds”, and even though “the nerds” get picked on by “the jocks” (or insert whichever high school clique you like) for being who they are, they still come together to play videogames, trade comic books, play chess, etc. because that’s a part of who they are. And they enjoy those parts of themselves (to be clear, I’ve done all of those things but play chess. I did, however, play D&D in high school, so there’s that). And in this hypothetical high-school setting, being “a nerd” isn’t necessarily a life-threatening “label” to carry. Sure, it makes things more difficult sometimes. I’m fortunate enough to have been “a nerd” in high school and still didn’t experience any bullying because of it, so I can say that seeking out like-minded individuals with similar interests and abilities in a relatively safe environment does absolutely exist.
On the other hand, when the danger and the discrimination become so wildly disproportionate to whatever makes us “different”, then yes. There is more of a reason to band together – for support, encouragement, hope, and to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels like we’re being persecuted for who we are on a core, raw human level. I wish more people had the opportunity to experience community in the former arena, i.e. within safe spaces and because we are drawn to people like us, even during good times. That’s part of the reason I wrote this series in the first place.
MIKE GLYER: Who was your favorite character to write?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I love this question, because the answer surprised me so much. While each of the characters in the Blue Helix series were phenomenally fun to write (and gave me more insight into myself and my understanding of the nearly infinite scope of individual human experiences), the character I enjoyed writing the most was Donna. And when I set out to write Sleepwater Static, Book 2, I had no idea that I would be writing her as much as I did. Honestly, I expected her to remain a mentioned side-character in the pen-pal letters between the main character Bernadette and her best friend Janet. But then I realized I needed to put Bernadette and her boyfriend Darrell into a room with Janet and Donna to explore some more ideas of interpersonal relationships I was playing with, and it happened more than once.
Donna is a sharp-witted, charismatic, well-educated, affluent, biracial lesbian living in Vincent, Alabama in the 1980s who also happened to have this beat-spinning ability herself. She is Janet’s partner through most of the book, and she later becomes the spearhead of a revolutionary movement/rebellion by a group of people with this same “mutant ability” even before the rest of the world knew what Sleepwater and people like them could do. She was so much fun to write precisely because she is so complex, and not always in a good way. I wanted to write her in as a character (including that full description above) that I found lacking in speculative fiction when it comes to BIPOC characters, especially in the South and especially in the ’80s. And while Donna knows how to play a room to her full advantage, how to win people over with her gorgeous smile and her go-get-’em attitude, how to organize and stoke the fires of inspiration and action in others, she’s one of the most insecure characters in this series. She’s manipulative, sensitive, emotionally abusive toward Janet at times, and terrifyingly territorial. Nothing stops her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to circumvent any obstacle standing between her and what she wants, even if it happens to be her own partner. I didn’t intend to use writing Donna and Janet’s relationship as a way to juxtapose a “seemingly normal” relationship that’s actually quite dysfunctional with a purely healthy, loving, respectful relationship we see between Bernadette and Darrell. But as I kept writing, that’s what it became. And it served another purpose “layer” of showing how impossible and senseless it really is to “judge a book by its cover” – or, in this case, to judge a person by physical, economic, financial, and intellectual status. I also really love writing sharp-edged characters you can’t help but admire and appreciate even after seeing glimpses of their “masochistic side”, and Donna most definitely fits that bill.
MIKE GLYER: Have you ever received any pushback from editors or readers when you’ve included marginalized characters in your stories?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This was one of the things that I was actually quite nervous about experiencing when I wrote both Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten any blowback whatsoever. In some ways, that still throws me for a loop, and I’m always expecting that feedback to come down the line at one point or another (I’ll chalk it up to knowing I have to have that “thick author skin”, and if I’m expecting it, it’s not that heavy of a blow when it happens). But so far, the worst feedback I’ve received from anyone — and it was a reader — was “some people may like reading about the seedier sides of other people” but the story “wasn’t happy enough”. That garnered me a two-star review for Sleepwater Beat, which I was actually thrilled to receive. I did not in any way set out to write this series with the intention of making it a happy-go-lucky sci-fi read with action and intrigue thrown in for fun. That’s just not what I write. And even though it was a two-star review, it still solidified in my mind the belief that I’m writing exactly what I want to write with this series. Not everyone is going to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to read fiction about “the darker underbelly of society” that just isn’t “happy enough”. And that’s okay. The people who do want to read it, like myself, appreciate it for what it is.
I was especially nervous about the potential for negative feedback when I wrote Sleepwater Static, because in addition to touching on the marginalized communities I explored and shed light on in Sleepwater Beat, Book 2 in this series also focuses a lot on racism, racial discrimination and injustice, interracial relationships and families, and the difficulties BIPOC face on an every day basis. The closest I felt I could respectfully get to touching on these issues, as a white woman who’s been the target of other forms of discrimination but not those based on skin color, was to write from the perspective of a main character who: is a white woman; has been the target of discrimination but not discrimination based on the color of her skin; is in a healthy romantic relationship with a black man in the South and has a child with him; and finds herself willing to do whatever she can to protect the people she loves, even if she happens to take it too far and make mistakes she deeply regrets along the way. My editor was such a huge part of reaffirming for me that I hit the points in Sleepwater Static delicately and respectfully. The other instrumental resource in ensuring I didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes, cross the boundaries into acceptable representation, or get things flat-out wrong was using a sensitivity reader. Fortunately, this sensitivity reader agreed with my editor, and I didn’t have to make any changes to the manuscript. I suppose I didn’t have to agonize over doing this “the right way” for as long as I did while writing this book, either, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless.
I recently was a guest on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast with The Dome and Cam to talk about Sleepwater Static, and they told me something after the show that was so invaluable for me to hear and that I think is a pretty important nugget for any writer wanting to tackle bigger issues within a work of speculative fiction. In a nutshell, they told me that the difference between writing on a large scale like this to the same effect of standing up on a soap box with a megaphone — spouting “political or social stances” — and writing in a way that is clear, versatile, and accessible to everyone, without becoming didactic or overblown, is whether or not we as writers are tackling these issues and writing our stories from a place of anger and fear. That was a hugely enlightening moment for me. I’ve written so many of my own personal life experiences into the Blue Helix series — some of them remarkably traumatic at one point in time — after I’d already found a place within myself where that rage and that fear could be removed. Not completely ignored or erased, because I’m well aware of the fact that the causes of that rage and fear (and the work I’ve done in my own life to move past them) will always be a part of who I am. But they are detached from my writing process, and it allows me to create stories like these that don’t feel didactic or like I’m trying to “sell” readers on any particular stance. Because I’m not. This is the one of the things, in my opinion, that may be a reason why I haven’t received a lot of pushback from editors or readers of the Blue Helix series since Sleepwater Beat released in November of 2018. I just want to offer readers a chance to look at the world around them from a different perspective, maybe even to realize that they’re not alone in how they think or feel or what they’ve gone through, and in doing that, I always prioritize the quality of my craft – good story, robust characters, real moments — first.
MIKE GLYER: Corporate villains, family betrayal, chemical addiction, racism, and sexual self-discovery, aren’t just issues explored in your books, they’re decision points a character may pay the price for with their lives. In one of your bios you talk about “Happily Never Afters.” What are the keys to writing stories like this that appeal to readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions?
KATHRIN HUTSON: Answering this question as so many layers I could probably keep peeling back forever. But the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m already well aware of the fact that we as writers can’t possibly appeal to everyone. Fiction would become quite bland indeed if that were the endgame. But I think that appealing to these readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions is made possible through what I believe is the cornerstone of every good story, which is that human connection. Despite race, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, education level, religion, belief system, any and all demographics I could list here, we all have something in common. We are all living, breathing, feeling human beings who hold personal values and care about something. Appealing to this shared human experience through fiction, I believe, is the best way to reach so many more people who would otherwise not have been open to reading about these things in the first place, or maybe even reading dark fiction as an overarching genre.
As an example, I met with a book club last year in Vermont who’d all read Sleepwater Beat beforehand. When this group came together to talk with me about the books (and it really turned into an hour-and-a-half-long discussion of them mostly describing their experiences and thoughts when reading, which was phenomenal), I was blown away by the demographics represented just in this small group — BIPOC, men, woman, straight cis-gendered men, LGBTQ people, parents, people without children, and the age rage went from 25 to 76. Each and every one of these book-club members had something to say about different parts in the book that spoke to them, touched on their own experiences, made them think differently, made them feel like they were seen and recognized, and helped them tap into the gratitude they carried for what they had in their own lives. And this was possible, I’d like to say, because of the fact that I do choose to put human relationships and “profound human stories” into the foreground of my work, especially with the Blue Helix series. We all have different experiences, and many of us break away from what we’re “conditioned” to believe, feel, think, understand simply through interactions with other humans and their experiences. I’m lucky enough to say that after everything I’ve been through in my life (and there’s plenty more of it to come), I’ve found my own version of a “happy ending”. And I think that by writing Happily Never Afters, at the very least, I may help others come to understand that reaching theirs is actually possible and not just relegated to fairytale resolutions.
MIKE GLYER: Finally, would you like to tell us about any other new or upcoming releases you have?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This may sound like a complete 180 after answering that last question, but my next upcoming release is the first in a Dark Urban Fantasy series called Accessory to Magic. Book 1 is The Witching Vault, which will be available on December 10th, 2020. I’m trying something a little bit different with this series, going for a “lighter” approach to fiction more for entertainment purposes than the complex levels of picking apart “the human struggle” found in the Blue Helix series. But, of course, the Accessory to Magic series still has my dark spin on it and quite a bit of my own experiences peppered throughout: An apprentice witch with a criminal past inherits a magical bank that can think for itself – and the clientele are almost as dangerous as what’s inside their safety deposit boxes.
I’m excited to see how my darkness-loving readers will react to something a little more on the fun-escapist side with a heck of a lot more snark. And, of course, I’m also working on Book 3 in the Blue Helix series, which will release in Spring of 2021. So readers have about eight months to prepare for that one, and it’s shaping up to be the series wildest ride yet.
Dan Hanks, author of Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, is a writer, editor, and vastly overqualified archaeologist who has lived everywhere from London to Hertfordshire to Manchester to Sydney, which explains the panic in his eyes anytime someone asks “Where are you from?” Thankfully he is now settled in the rolling green hills of the Peak District with his human family and fluffy sidekicks Indy and Maverick, where he writes books, screenplays and comics.
By Dan Hanks: Nostalgia can be dangerous.
Sure, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed rolling about in it for the last decade or so, as it became a dominating force in our films, shows and books. As a Gen Xer, I consider a lot of my life to have been shaped by the stories I was lucky enough to have growing up. So I’ve appreciated the opportunity to meet beloved characters again. To hear their theme tunes blasting from the speakers, as I hunker down with some popcorn and let myself be swept back off to a universe I visited often as a child. I’ve even relished the chance to read new stories featuring a whole lifetime’s supply of references to everything I ever watched.
I’ve loved it all.
But let’s be honest. Has this pandering to nostalgia always led to good things?
With my debut novel, Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, I’m wearing my nostalgic heart on my sleeve. From the cover to the story inside, this book is all about trying to tap into that old school adventure feeling of Saturday morning serials, Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and The Rocketeer to name a few influences. Yet I’ve also strived to ensure I’m providing something fresh and exciting at the heart of the story, with characters who seem at once both familiar and new, in roles that might not go in the directions you’re expecting.
Yes, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in my story. However, there are plenty of shades of grey on offer too, as well as some different thinking on the nature of the treasure-hunting archaeological quest everyone’s on. Again, I’ve attempted to twist expectations just a little.
And that’s where I think the danger of nostalgia can lurk.
I can only speak for myself, but the recent revisiting of hugely popular universes from decades ago didn’t quite work as I’d hoped they might. The trailers nailed the look and feel. Oh boy did they, capturing the tone and the excitement, often making me feel like a kid again as the scores swept by and we get glimpses of the kinds of adventures we loved back then.
But arguably the films themselves fell short, possibly falling into the trap of catering too much to nostalgia. They brought back characters we knew and loved… and kept them exactly as we’d met them previously. They hadn’t evolved in any of the ways I thought they could (or should) have. Plus we got stories that trod similar paths to ones we’ve followed before, without offering up anything new or exciting (although you could argue that they show how society can get stuck in a loop without learning from its past – as our own seems to have done – and sure that’s valid, but not necessarily entertaining).
These disappointments made me understand a little more about the danger of letting memory overwhelm creativity. Yet there are other examples where the nostalgia is weaved into the story perfectly.
I’ve just finished binge-watching both seasons of Cobra Kai and holy crap this is a wonderful example of how to tap those old memories and feelings without falling into the pitfalls they can bring. Giving us the same feel on the screen, with characters we already loved or loved to hate, but serving a twist on expectations of who they are and what their journeys will be.
I wasn’t excited for this show. Mainly because the trailers were so-so, showing middle-aged men squaring off as they once had 35 years ago, just a bit slower. But in fact this is a beautiful, funny show, about the redemption of the old antagonist through exploring the reasons he fell to the dark side and detailing his awakening in the modern world as a deadbeat parent. And this is almost a literal awakening too, as one of the best things of the show is the way Johnny seems to have skipped straight here from the 80s, having had his drunken head down all this time until he’s finally forced to confront the present.
You wouldn’t think a modern revisiting of The Karate Kid would be about such things and yet it’s the perfect evolution of the characters. Because we all grow up and get responsibilities. Sometimes we have kids. We fall into jobs we don’t like or that aren’t quite where we pictured ourselves. Life isn’t the same. And sometimes the events of the past – good and bad – can haunt us in different ways if we don’t let them go.
Thinking back, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica did a similar thing. I loved the original, with its cheesy special effects and brilliant flowing hair. However, making the updated version so vastly different within the familiar universe was a stroke of genius and ensured this great version of the show would find a whole bunch of new fans as well as bring along most of the old who were curious.
If we’re going to continue mining the nostalgia of our childhoods – we probably will and I am still here for it – I think we need to understand that this is the way it can work well. Give us the tone and spirit of the original influences as a touchstone to the feelings we had in our past. But also give us a twist in the stories if you can. Make them fresh and exciting and relevant to us now. Let the characters have changed in all the time we haven’t seen them. Give them new concerns and responsibilities. Let’s see where they’ve come from and the new and interesting path they have ahead.
Most importantly, be brave enough to acknowledge that the power of nostalgia can’t carry any project. There has to be an evolution of some form within it.
By Cat Eldridge: In honor of Ellen Datlow sharing the cover for Best Horror of the Year, Volume Twelve, let’s note that the first volume in what would be the long-running award-winning Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror anthology series was published in August of 1988. It wasn’t called that but was titled The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection. Cover art here as it was for all twenty-one volumes is by Tom Canty. It was edited by her and Terri Windling as it would be for the next sixteen years until Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link would take over for Windling for the last five volumes.
As a reviewer would note of a later volume, “…the essays at the beginning are fascinating: Summation of Fantasy 1993 by Windling; Summation of Horror 1993 by Datlow; Comics by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull; Horror and Fantasy in the Media by Edward Bryant.” I don’t remember if the first volume had the summations but I’ll ask Ellen. (Some hours later and after a long email conversation of fiction, living spaces and dark chocolate.) Yes, she says that they’ve always had the summations.
Oh, the authors you ask. Just look at the cover below. It’s a fair representation of the writers found in the series but I couldn’t summarize the diversity of those whose writings are here as Datlow and Windling over their sixteen volumes would find writers and fiction of an amazing breadth, often delving into literary publications for these works that were delightfully obscure. Harlan Ellison and Jane Yolen are here, but so are Natalie Babbit, author of Tuck Everlasting, and Kathryn Ptacek, later winner of two Stokers, who I’d never heard at that point but who turned out to be delightful writers. Did I mention there’s a Alan Moore Liavek novella here?
The first volume won a World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology and the series would eventually win a total of three World Fantasy Awards and a Stoker. You won’t find them being offered up in digital form as the packager has said in an email to me when I asked if that was planned that they didn’t secure digital rights when the original author contracts were done.
A hallowed series was off to a very fine start. If you’ve not read it, the trade paper edition can be had rather reasonably.
Guest Post by V. S. Holmes: Science Fiction Fantasy as a genre is known for tackling massive scopes and complicated settings, from Blade Runner’s seedy cyberpunk cities to the galactic warfare in Ender’s Game. In the past decade, however, sci-fi has undergone a tonal shift from action-packed pages and explosion-filled screens to creeping subtlety. While blockbuster action films and space marines are still fun fan favorites, focus has shifted to reflect the audiences’ deeper understanding of our own world–and how it inspires SFF world building.
All genres rely on the reader for a piece of the experience. Art’s subjectivity lies in the fact that what a reader brings to the table doesn’t always fit with the framework an author crafted. Sci-fi and horror rely on a much larger contribution than many other genres. The most powerful books and films in the genre, both modern and classic, are those that trust their audience and respect them enough to toss an intricate ball of science or magic and social questions with a wink and say, “your turn.”
This is where subtlety’s power lies. Bombastic scenes and fire and explosions rock your system by overloading it–arguably mimicking the disorienting experience of firefights and disasters. Slow suspense and easing into a sense of, well, unease, puts the ball in the viewer’s court in a vastly more intimate way. We see this in the slightly-to-the-left world of Black Mirror, each episode extrapolating from its quiet world building. The only limit to the scene’s impact is our own imaginations. We see this effect across most fiction, from thrillers to historical dramas, but science fiction and horror lend themselves to these quiet tools on a deeper level, in part because that is where their roots lie.
Sci-fi’s conception sits in the speculative, the parent of all human innovation: what if? When crafting these stories, we build a huge framework for this question, leaping from concept to concept in an augmented version of Nightmare Before Christmas’s “What’s This?” While we might tease and tweak and slip in hundred clues as to how we, as authors, would respond to that question, the answer is ultimately up to the reader.
This is powerful because when we encounter analogous situations in our own world, we find their foundations in insidious complacency, atrocities protected by corrupt laws, and thousands who look the other way. That same uncertainty whether societies can change carries over and lends credence to the fictional worlds we create and consume.
I’ve seen readers remark on the accurate, slow-burn warfare in my Blood of Titans world, and how it leans away from fast-paced LitRPG and sweeping battles present in many of the genre’s classics. This is because war and revolutions aren’t won by a sudden cataclysmic battle. Most end with them, yes, but what sows the seeds for victory is actually that steady, quiet drive and the determined innovation of the unseen populace.
When writing, I strive to dig into the how and why behind the flashy excitement of divine battles and massive rebellions, and the part of craft that, for me, is a bit like volleying postulations between myself and my audience. While my prose might languish in the lyrical or rich, my worlds are built on the same understated complexity as our own.
My science fiction Starsedge: Nel Bently series is louder than my fantasy, on the surface. I love my dramatic shuttle launches and Rubik’s-cube mechanical planets as much as the next nerd! But under the veneer of those explosions and fire-brand personalities, is the question of where we are going, how we can possibly get there from the dark crossroad where we currently stand. With questions like these, I turn to my community, to my readers, and to the thousands of unheard giants who brought us this far.
So, why is subtlety seeing a resurgence in popularity? Tracing back some of the horrific or awe-inspiring concepts in world building, it’s no surprise that we find they mirror events in our own world. So many marginalized voices write incredibly impactful speculative works because we know there isn’t always a happy ending. We know how deep and knotted the roots of these systems reach in our own world because we’ve seen the underbelly. We’re privy to the depths our own antagonists will go. Some of the most powerful works of science fiction are woven by those exploring oppression–the Alien IP, specifically Prometheus, is an incredible analogy for abortion, and Viscera is a SFF made all the more powerful by the transgender perspective of its author, Gabby Squalia. As a disabled person and trauma survivor, seeing Furiosa’s nuanced character in a world as hard as cinematic as Mad Max brought so much inspiration.
As marginalized creators receive a long-overdue focus in the mainstream, we return to the genre’s genesis. After all, sci-fi was birthed by the likes of Margaret Cavendish (The Blazing World) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein and The Last Man), marginalized for their gender, and many more who had to imagine a world in which our voices are heard.
The return of these themes in sci-fi is a reflection of what we see in the world today. As nations are rocked with change and communities reach a boiling point, we look back on the steps it took to get this far, the steps still needed to move forward. Where better to search for those roadmaps than fiction that speculates on where we could go or what communities we will build from the shambles of this one? The science fiction that speaks to me the most, both as a creator and an audience, are the ones that explore not only the terror that so many of us experience, but our power, our agency, and the incredible future we can create.
Like my fiction, I’ll end this with a postulation: where better to seek answers to “what if?” than the genre asking that question all along?
V. S. HOLMES is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015 and a Literary Titan Gold Award in 2020. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies.
When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds.
Blood and Mercy, the final book in the Blood of Titans: Reforged series hits shelves June 27th 2020
By Mike Glyer: Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the top science fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (Hominids), the Nebula (The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Mindscan). He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2016 “for his accomplishments as a science-fiction writer and mentor and for his contributions as a futurist.” Sawyer’s new book The Oppenheimer Alternative will be released June 2 and is available for pre-order now.
MIKE GLYER: Why this book at this time?
ROBERT J. SAWYER: There are three reasons. First, this is the 75th-anniversary year of the birth of the atomic age: July 16 is the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test; August 6, the bombing of Hiroshima; and August 9, the bombing of Nagasaki.
Science-fiction publishers are notoriously bad about promoting books — one senior editor once told me they literally have no idea how to do that — but I knew, given my track record, that I could get lots of mainstream media attention if my book tied into a major anniversary. I was so convinced of the importance of this that I turned down offers from bigger publishers who wanted The Oppenheimer Alternative but said they couldn’t get it out until 2021 or even later.
Second, enough time has passed for an appropriate reassessment. Everyone I portray in my book is dead except for Oppenheimer’s son Peter, although Freeman Dyson was alive when I finished the book. I sent him an autographed bound galley with my regards, which he received just before he died.
If you do a book today about Ronald Reagan or either Bill or Hillary Clinton or Elon Musk or William Shatner, the partisans descend upon you, but we all can look back now at the cast I used — not just Oppenheimer, but Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Leslie R. Groves, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Harry Truman, Wernher von Braun, and John von Neumann — with a degree of objectivity.
This sort of historical writing is somewhat akin to the science-fiction process: a scientist conceives of a great idea — Szilard, say, with the nuclear-fission chain reaction or Oppie with black holes — and we extrapolate forward to see what the ramifications of it will turn out to be. The difference is that in historical writing, we know the ramifications by now.
Third, there are profound real-life parallels today. The obvious one is the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation as rogue nations and the White House rattle their sabers. But, more subtly, the development of artificial intelligence — one of my favorite topics in previous books — echoes the Manhattan Project: a bunch of scientists, with virtually no oversight, deciding what is and what is not good for the rest of us.
You know, in 1942, Edward Teller had suggested that a single blast of an atomic bomb might ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or all the nitrogen in the atmosphere, destroying the world. Hans Bethe said, nah, you’re probably wrong — and so they went ahead and did a test without any public or Congressional discussion of what amount of risk-taking with an extinction-level event was acceptable. Likewise, almost all artificial-intelligence research is done today in deep secret by the military or by corporations, with no one but the scientists themselves deciding if and when to throw a particular switch that might unleash Frankenstein’s monster.
MG:The Oppenheimer Alternative is grounded in your extensive research of the history of physics and atomic weaponry. I recognized some of that history but it was only quite late in the book that I recognized the science fictional departures — the alternate history. Are they present throughout, or is your goal to take readers inside the Manhattan Project as it happened?
SAWYER: The point of departure from what is established fact occurs in chapter 14 out of 57, when Edward Teller and Hans Bethe start arguing about their conflicting solar spectrographs, Bethe’s from 1938, which seems to show the sun undergoing carbon-nitrogen-oxygen-cycle (CNO) fusion, and Teller’s from 1945, which seem to show it undergoing proton-proton fusion.
But I actually don’t call the novel an alternate history; I think of it more as a secret history. None of the events it portrays are contradicted by what we know actually occurred. Instead, I’m filling in the gaps in the record. And gaps there surely are. As I mentioned above, Oppie was responsible for the notion of black holes. As Freeman Dyson wrote:
“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”
And when Oppie was hauled before a security-review board, Deak Parsons, his second-in-command at Los Alamos really did go ape, declaring, in reference to President Eisenhower:
“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!”
In a bit of bad luck for Parsons — not to mention Oppie! — Parsons keeled over dead the next morning before he got in to see Eisenhower.
Even Oppie himself alluded to something huge going on behind the scenes. He really did say:
“There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.”
So I set out to tell that story: the tale of why Oppie never commented publicly again on his astrophysics research, of the truth about what was really going that Parsons took to his grave, of the “bigger story” Oppie referred to.
There’s a thorough discussion of what’s real history and what’s my invention on my website: https://sfwriter.com/ffoa.htm
As you’ll see when you get to the chapter-by-chapter breakdown, the book is about half events we know actually occurred and half ones that are my own plotting.
MG:Many of the scientists whose characters are drawn on your pages died in the Sixties, like Oppenheimer himself, but others remained active for decades, like Hans Bethe, or Freeman Dyson (who I saw speak in 2013). Did you ever meet any of these scientists yourself? If so, how were you able to use those experiences to shape their characterizations in your book?
SAWYER: The only Manhattan Project figure I got to meet was Nobel Prize-winner Luis Alvarez; he graciously spent an afternoon with me at UC Berkeley on September 7, 1983, although my interest then was more in his work on identifying an asteroid as the cause of what we now call the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinctions.
But I’ve enjoyed having long conversations with four other Nobel laureates — Elizabeth Blackburn, Arthur McDonald, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert W. Wilson — and I drew heavily on those encounters in trying to portray the Nobelists in my novel.
Unlike the geeks portrayed on The Big Bang Theory, by and large these were people who were just as interested in the arts as the sciences, who were as happy to talk about their kids or pop culture as about their specialties, and who, although entitled perhaps to some arrogance, were actually all quite humble and nice.
There’s a zen that comes with reaching the pinnacle of your field. Of course, at the beginning of the Manhattan Project, of the physicists who appear in The Oppenheimer Alternative, only Neils Bohr, Arthur Holly Compton, Albert Einstein, and Enrico Fermi already had their Nobels; the ones for Luis Alvarez, Hans Bethe, Patrick Blackett, Richard Feynman, and I.I. Rabi came later.
Naturally, I’d seen Freeman Dyson speak many times on TV, and his son George gave my novel a very nice blurb, but I never got to meet Freeman or the others except Alvarez, although, of course, I’ve read all the biographies and autobiographies, and I’ve been to Los Alamos and the Trinity site.
MG:How should the A-bomb have been used? You show how Leo Szilard, who got Einstein to write to FDR urging the creation of an atomic weapon, circulated a petition calling for a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese experts, rather start out using it on Japanese cities. The petition was suppressed and the leadership chose to drop the bomb to end the war. My father was a Marine on a troop carrier floating around Okinawa by then, so the idea that this was done in alternative to invading the Home Islands was real to him. Others now write that it was used with the intent to establish a post-war order with America as the only superpower. There are also some who look on its use as the product of an overpowering narrative, like Chekhov’s gun — “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” What’s your take on why it was used?
SAWYER: This is a sensitive issue, and I want to address it with an appropriate degree of respect. Most people think of me as a Canadian writer, but I’m also an American citizen, and I intend no bashing of the US here. Indeed, Canada is culpable, too: the three countries that collaborated on the development of the atomic bomb were the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
So let me start obliquely. I know exactly what I was doing on Sunday night, January 19, 1975: I was watching the first-ever broadcast of the episode “The Last Kamikaze” on The Six Million Dollar Man, written by Judy Burns, perhaps best known for previously having scripted “The Tholian Web” for Star Trek.
In this episode, United States Air Force Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut and the very symbol of US patriotism, finds a Kamikaze pilot who thinks World War II is still being fought. In trying to explain that the war is over, Steve says this, verbatim — just about the longest speech Lee Majors made in the entire series:
“I’m afraid your Emperor didn’t have much choice. It’s not easy for me to tell you this. The United States invented an atomic bomb, a powerful bomb that could destroy a whole city with one explosion. At the time it seemed the best way to stop the war was to drop the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities. I wish it wasn’t true. Most Americans wish it never happened. But it did. Two Japanese cities were completely destroyed. Many, many people were killed. Your Emperor saw the wisdom of surrender. The fighting stopped September 1945, almost thirty years ago.”
I was fourteen then, and I was floored. Never before had I heard anyone say that most Americans — or Brits or Canadians — regretted using the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remained alert for similar assertions, but it wasn’t until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s short story “The Lucky Strike,” which was first published in 1984 but I didn’t discover until 1989, that I again heard doubts being raised about the necessity of dropping those bombs.
I don’t gainsay your father’s feelings or experience for one moment, Mike. That the bombs had to be dropped was the line he and everyone else was fed then — and that most people still accept today. But it’s just not true (a) that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb at all, (b) that it was necessary to use it on civilian targets, (c) that the bombings in fact reduced the number of American war dead, and (d) that the bombings even reduced the number of Japanese war dead.
In truth, Japan had been making back-channel overtures to surrender for a year before the atomic bombs were dropped, wanting only one condition: that Emperor Hirohito, whom they considered divine, retain his throne. This seemed reasonable to both Churchill and Roosevelt — after all, there’d have to be some sort of functioning government in Japan after the war. But FDR went off-script in a briefing that was broadcast on radio and called instead for _“unconditional_ surrender.”
Churchill was gobsmacked, but said — as quoted in Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb — “Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort,” and because of that one slip of the tongue the official demand became unconditional surrender. Well, asking the Japanese to renounce the emperor in 1945 wouldn’t be much different from demanding the US renounce Jesus then if America had been the country needing to surrender — a complete non-starter.
On the day of the Trinity test, July 16, 1945, General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, said — his own words as he reported them in his autobiography, Now It Can Be Told — in response to someone declaring the war was now over, “Yes, after we drop two bombs on Japan.”
Two bombs. He was hell-bent on testing both of their two competing bomb designs — the straightforward gun-type “Little Boy” and the complex implosion “Fat Man” — on civilian populations. At Groves’s request, a few Japanese cities had been spared the firebombing that had already ravaged Tokyo and other places precisely so that they could be used as pristine testbeds for atomic explosions.
Indeed, Groves was so afraid that he wouldn’t be get to test the second bomb design on Japan that he rushed the bombing of Nagasaki. He had it occur just three days after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima, even though word of what had happened in that city was only just reaching the Tokyo government, because thunderstorms were forecast for the subsequent few days. He knew that if he waited, the Japanese might surrender before he got to drop a Fat Man on the planned target of Kokura; it was only because of overcast skies there that Bockscar actually dropped its atomic bomb on Nagasaki instead.
Of course, once both bombs were dropped, we of the Allied powers happily accepted surrender and freely gave Japan the one condition it had always wanted: Hirohito the divine retained his throne until his death forty-four years later in 1989.
This topic always engenders a lot of heat, and a lot of people — including my US publisher, Shahid Mahmud — have gone back and forth with me over the issue. To at least give people a current overview of the topic, rather than what they might have learned in history class decades ago, I’ve put up a sourced discussion of this on my website: https://sfwriter.com/suoa.htm
Okay, enough preamble; let me answer your questions directly, Mike. In the first place, the atomic bomb never should have been built at all. I’ve read the Farm Hall transcripts made of secret recordings of Werner Heisenberg and others after the war, and it’s clear that Germany was nowhere near having, and really not seriously trying to develop, an atomic bomb.
Indeed, I’m in the camp — although this is certainly debatable — that believe Heisenberg, a German patriot but one who couldn’t stomach what Hitler was doing, threw the game and made sure the Fatherland would never develop an atomic bomb for that madman to use.
Second, Leo Szilard was right: if you had to show the world you had such a bomb, either as a deterrent or to explain to the taxpayers what you’d spent two billion 1945 dollars on, all you needed to do was invite Japanese observers and journalists to a remote site, set off the bomb there, and let people see what it could do.
The only reason I can see that this approach was unacceptable to Groves, who scuttled Szilard’s petition supporting this idea, was that he and others didn’t want the Soviets — the real audience — to know just that the US had a hugely powerful new weapon but also to have them know that the US had the balls to actually use it against civilian populations. No safe demonstration would have conveyed that message, and Truman, who by this time had succeeded FDR, delusionally believed that the Russians would “never” — his word — get the atomic bomb, so he felt there was no need to worry about them ever doing the same thing to the West.
So, I’m with Steve Austin from all those years ago: I wish it had never happened.
MG:Science fiction written in the Thirties contemporaneously with the period where your novel begins tended to be populated by altruistic superscientists — thinking for example of E.E. Smith’s Skylark series, and John W. Campbell Jr.’s stories about Arcot, Wade and Morey. Growing acceptance of scientific leadership on the issues of the day was once considered part of sf’s mission. But no matter what problem they’re working on, creating the atomic bomb or saving the human race from the calamity posed in your novel, your characters are utterly human, with questions never far from their minds like: Who gets the prizes? Who gets the good jobs? Who gets to work on the most interesting topics? Can sf readers handle the truth?
SAWYER: Excellent question. Science fiction, as a field, long held these truths to be self-evident: all scientific knowledge is worth having; government oversight is an impediment to progress — only those supercompetent Heinleinian lone wolves (read: we science-fiction fans) have the moxy to propel us into the future; and as long as our side is the one with the superior firepower, we’ll only use it virtuously. But all three of those are demonstrably hogwash.
Scientists are as human and as fallible as anyone else; they have — as Oppie contended throughout his life — no special moral insight; and most are, like people in any profession, careerists and opportunists trying to build reputations, make money, and get ahead.
One of my favorite bits in The Oppenheimer Alternative, wholly fictitious as far as I know, has Oppie, who was the manager of a team of Nobel laureates but never won the prize himself, getting to hold I.I. Rabi’s Nobel Prize: “Oppie rubbed the medal between thumb and forefinger, an atom or two of gold transferring to him, a few molecules from his body making a new home on the disk. Soon, he hoped; soon.” That sort of ambition is real, driving, and often blinds one to reality.
Can science-fiction readers handle the truth? I hope so. The ideal of the scientist as unbiased, rational truthseeker, as a Godlike beneficence, as an infallible oracle is simply not supportable. One of the great joys of reading — and writing — sf is getting inside the heads of realistic scientists and seeing the myriad conscious and subconscious forces that color their perceptions.
MG:Sf has become a more skeptical genre, more interested in mythmaking than science. What kind of stories would you like to see more of? And are there people you could point to already working in those areas?
SAWYER: I mentioned my friend Kim Stanley Robinson earlier. He and I do seem to be part of the very small group still left whose members generally write optimistic science fiction; the days of Clarke and Asimov and their mostly sunny futures are long behind us. But it’ll be interesting to see how the field morphs after the COVID–19 pandemic: all those dystopian visions perhaps don’t seem nearly as entertaining as they did before.
Science fiction never predicts the future, but collectively, on any given topic, it should predict a smorgasbord of possible futures — and I firmly believe that, unless we put some positive scenarios on the table, the negative ones will become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Despite what I said earlier, for instance, I don’t think that artificial intelligence will necessarily be our downfall, although that was what almost all written and media sf was telling us, and so I wrote my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder to add a win-win scenario to the discourse on the topic.
But finding similarly good-hearted, upbeat books is hard; cynicism is often presented as if it were a de facto measure of both literary worth and personal maturity. I recently went back and read a bunch of James White’s Sector General hospital-in-space books because I needed a dose of that good old-fashioned the-future-will-be-a-better-place science fiction.
MG:What projects do you have in the works?
SAWYER: I’ve been lucky, as genre authors go. A lot of foreign-language popularity, some good Hollywood deals, and so on, have left me with the luxury of taking my time with books now. It’s been four years since my last novel, Quantum Night, and I’m only very slowly gearing up to write my next (which will be my 25th).
As always, I start with research, research, and more research. I have a vague notion for a novel about the future relationship between people and artificial intelligences, and I’ve been doing background reading related to that for months now — but I haven’t written a word of the novel yet.
I usually start with a topic, develop a theme, create characters that will let me explore the multiple facets of that theme, and only then work out a plot. At this point, I’m still developing my theme — the fundamental thing I want to say. As the old fanzine writers would have put it, I’m thisclose to having pinned it down, though.
I also just wrote a pilot script based on my 1997 novel Illegal Alien and I’ve got some nice Tinsel Town interest in doing a TV version of that book. And I’m in negotiations to do an original project for Audible. But, most of all, I’m just reading and thinking … and seeing where my curiosity leads me next.
Us in Flux, a new series of stories and virtual live events about community, collaboration, and collective imagination in times of transformative change, has been launched by The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. They will publish an original flash fiction story every Thursday, and the following Monday at 4 p.m. Eastern, they’ll host a conversation between the author and an expert in a related field.
The first story, released April 9, is “The Parable of the Tares” by Christopher Rowe, about food, monoculture, and communities that draw together the human and non-human. On Monday, April 13 at 4 p.m. Eastern, they will host their first virtual event, putting Rowe in conversation with Michael Bell, chair of the Community & Environmental Sociology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Their press release outlines the mission —
“The only lasting truth is change.” — Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower
As the ground shifts under our feet and we ponder the far-reaching effects of this global crisis, Octavia Butler’s words ring true. Uncertainty abounds even in the best of times, and our responses to it determine our fate. Understanding, anticipating, and responding to change is at the heart of science fiction— envisioning ourselves amid the strange and the fantastic attunes us to the unexpected and helps us chart a course to a better future.
With this in mind, we’re proud to launch Us in Flux, a weekly series of flash fiction stories and virtual events about community, collaboration, and collective imagination in the face of transformative change. But fear not: these aren’t tales of the apocalypse. We’ve invited a group of talented authors, scholars, and creators to give us glimpses of new worlds; of people and systems in transition; and of the different ways we might flourish in times of adversity.
Upcoming pieces will be by Kij Johnson (April 16), Chinelo Onwualu (April 23), Tochi Onyebuchi (April 30), Tina Connolly, and Nisi Shawl.
During this live event, Christopher and Mike will talk about the origins of the story, their shared passion for agroecology and politics, and what this story has to say about our current moment. The discussion will be broadcast live on Zoom and available on-demand shortly after. Register today!
latest Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF) Deep Dish Reading series was
held on October 3 at Volumes Book Cafe in Chicago, Illinois. Co-hosted by
award-winning author Mary Anne Mohanraj and Chris Bauer, the event featured
readings by G. Scott Huggins, Jane Rosenberg LaForge and Silvia
Moreno-Garcia. Other readers included Sue Burke, Anaea Lay, Jeremiah John
and Mary Anne Mohanraj. These periodic free events are sponsored by the SLF
with assistance from SFWA grants. The next reading will be held in March of
2020. We’re currently open to interested readers.
latest Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF) Deep Dish Reading series was
held on August 8 at Volumes Book Cafe in Chicago, Illinois. Co-hosted by award-winning
author Mary Anne Mohanraj and Chris Bauer, the event featured readings by Scott
Woods, S.L. Huang and T.J. Martinson. Other readers included Dawn Bonanno,
Richard Chwedyk, Beth Kander and Aurelius Raines II.
periodic free events are sponsored by the SLF with assistance from SFWA grants.
The next reading will be held October 3, 2019, 7 p.m., at Volumes Book Cafe,
1474 N. Milwaukee; all are welcome. Readers will include Jane Rosenberg
LaForge, Siliva Moreno-Garcia and Sue Burke.