Coffee Prince, Avatar, and Robot Rebellions: A Conversation with Madeline Ashby
If you search the Tor.com site for Madeline Ashby, you will find this entry: “Hi. My name is Madeline Ashby, and I write the Cowboy Bebop rewatch posts.” Dig deeper and you’ll find an individual who is passionate about a great many things: anime, novels, film, and the future among them.
Born in Panorama City, CA, Ashby grew up in Washington state, in a household of science fiction fans, then moved to Canada. She graduated from Seattle University (after having written a departmental thesis on science fiction) and later earned an MA from York University in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Japanese animation, cyborg theory, and fan cultures. She went to the Ontario College of Art and Design University and earned an MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation with a focus on the future of border security.
Ashby has been writing science fiction since around age thirteen, but in 2005, she met Ursula K. Le Guin in the basement of The Elliott Bay Book Company, after which she decided to write science fiction in earnest. While immigrating to Canada from the United States in 2006, she joined the Cecil Street Irregulars, a genre writers’ workshop founded by Judith Merril. Her first published story was in the 2007 anthology Tesseracts Eleven, edited by Cory Doctorow and Holly Phillips: “In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock n’ Roll.” Her first SFWA-qualifying professional sale was “The Chair” in Nature in 2009. Slate published short story “Domestic Violence” in 2018, which was a Sunburst Award finalist. “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” in the 2018 Saga anthology Robots vs. Fairies placed her on the 2019 Locus Recommended Reading list.
Ashby’s debut novel vN came out in 2012 and was a finalist for both the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award and the First Novel category Locus Award. The Machine Dynasties series continued with 2013’s iD, and forthcoming ReV, due in July. Stand-alone Company Town, published in 2016, was a finalist for the Aurora Award, the Best SF Novel category Locus Award, and the 2017 CBC Books Canada Reads competition; it won a Copper Cylinder Award, and it’s currently in development for television. She has another stand-alone near-future novel on the way.
Ashby coedited Aurora Award finalist Licence Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond anthology with horror writer and husband David Nickle, she was a contributor to tie-in serial Orphan Black: The Next Chapter for Serial Box, and she cowrote nonfiction book How to Future with Changeist cofounder Scott Smith. As if all this weren’t impressive enough: she works as a futurist, with clients such as the World Health Organization, Intel Labs, and the Institute for the Future. Her essays have appeared at Boing Boing, io9, WorldChanging, The Atlantic, MISC Magazine, and FutureNow.
Come for the anime, the great fiction, or the visions of the future. Madeline Ashby is a multifaceted powerhouse.
You grew up reading books and have always been an avid reader. What is important to you in a story or book? What do you look for; what keeps you interested?
I usually know within a few paragraphs if a book is for me. What the first kiss is for sex, the opening chapter is for a novel. If I’m not sure, then I flip to the middle and check out the prose there. The true test of any book is the middle. Can it hold you through the laggy parts? What is that book doing, during the seventh inning stretch? When I was younger, I guess I was more shallow about it: I had this whole phase as a teenager where I could pick books out just by touch, because certain imprints like Vintage International and others were doing brushed covers. Brushed cover books were my whole entire jam for this really intense two-year period. So, I would go through used bookstores with my eyes closed and my fingers drifting over the covers until I found the right one for me.
In your 2016 essay on cyberpunk at Tor.com you talked about the daunting nature of writing in genre and “participating in a conversation that’s been going on for just about as long as you’ve been alive.” To that point, is it important for science fiction writers to read the classics of science fiction? Is having that foundation necessary to participating in the literary conversation?
This is tough, in that I went to a Jesuit university, and I was part of a classics-oriented program, and I derived a lot of value from that and I think it helped get me where I am today. So, for example, we had to read Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, in our Origin of the Novel class. We had to write a diary about each chapter, and my every entry was just about how this book made me pine for the sweet release of death. And that’s how I feel reading a lot of Asimov and Heinlein. Having written a series of robot novels, I used to get asked all the time if Asimov inspired me. No. He didn’t. His ideas inspired me, but his robot stories read like frustrated Agatha Christie imitations. And if you read parts of the Foundation novels in a quiet room, and you listen carefully, you can hear his ghost jerking off.
The thing about the literary conversation is that yes, you should do your homework. But there are a lot of ways to go about that: there are people who swear up and down that you need to read a classic writer’s entire backlist, but they’ve never picked up a book of peer reviewed essays critiquing that author’s work. Reading those books doesn’t mean you’ve delved into them. How can you have a “literary conversation” about a book or a writer if you aren’t aware of their position in a larger critical discourse, or the broader implications of their ideas? Am I fake geek girl if I tell a hardcore Vinge fan that I found A Fire Upon the Deep almost impenetrable, but I’m fascinated by the Tines from the perspective of Husserl’s phenomenology of consciousness and Nagel’s critique of materialism? No. I’m just a slightly different order of geek.
Life is too short. Read stuff that speaks to you and then read the authors that inspired those people. And then, look at the gaps in your reading. Who aren’t you reading? Who got left out? Why is that? That’s the homework.
What are a few of the books or stories (old or new) that have been most important to you, and why?
I became a history major in university because I read The English Patient the summer before ninth grade, by Michael Ondaatje. (It’s probably also on some level why I came to Toronto.) That was the book I wanted to write when I was a teenager. When I was that age, I really wanted to be literary. Like I was reading a lot of Millhauser, and Murakami later on in university. One of my short stories, “Domestic Violence,” is patterned after one of his, called “Barn Burning,” which is named for a Faulkner story and was later made into a really stunning Korean film called Burning. “Barn Burning” is one of those stories where you read it once and then you read it again after you’ve done some living, and then it chills you to the core. Another of his stories, “Ice Man” is like that for me too. The second time I read it I just burst into tears. When I read it at twenty, I didn’t get it. At twenty-seven, it knocked me out.
I return to films more often than books, because although I’m a fast reader, films are still faster. When I was little, I wanted to direct. Part of me still wants to. I’ve directed a short film and written two. If I could have instant investment capital in another career, it would be filmmaking. I have films I watch over and over again. Aside from the usual franchise subjects, I watch Jaws and The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and The Wicker Man at least once a year. I’m a big fan of Branagh’s uncut Hamlet. I’ve probably seen The Silence of the Lambs over ten times. I watch it to feel better. Ditto some Fincher films: like everyone, I watched Fight Club a lot in high school, although I watched the commentary track most often. I’ve seen Gone Girl and Zodiac at least five times each. Probably more. Drive, too.
There was a month during the process of writing one of my books when I would put on Manhunter every night before I went to bed. I watched Once Upon A Time . . . in Hollywood three times in a forty-eight hour period, but I think critics will eventually recognize The Hateful Eight as the truer statement on America. I watch Inception every time I’m on a plane. As a kid I watched Rear Window and Vertigo and North by Northwest multiple times a day on Betamax tape. (I’m sure you’re sensing a theme, here, and the theme is that I’m your dad.) I’ve probably seen Midsommar and Hereditary each at least three times now. Aster does catharsis in the Aristotelian style: a purification, a draining of emotion that brings those emotions into balance. (“Catharsis,” you’ll recall, was originally a medical term.)
I really appreciate the generation of horror cinema that Ari Aster is part of, with Ti West, Adam Wingard, Jeremy Saulnier, Jim Mickle, that whole movement made possible by Leigh Whannell and James Wan. Karyn Kusama’s part of that, generation, too. The Invitation turned out to be so prophetic; I can’t wait for her Dracula. I know people call it “elevated horror” or whatever, but I bristle at that term. Horror should be beautiful, because beauty requires vulnerability to appreciate. That’s why dictators always have bad taste. I think people fail to understand the difference between terror and horror. Terror is knowing that you might die. Horror is knowing you absolutely will die, and so will everyone you love, and that the only reward for living long enough is getting to watch it happen. The heart is the organ through which we apprehend the void. Aristotle knew this, that we cannot feel fear without empathy.
Otherwise, I probably reread Jane Eyre once a year, because it’s a favorite of my mother’s, and then I often end up rereading The Hound of the Baskervilles in the autumn. My mother used to tell me stories about Scout and Jem from To Kill A Mockingbird when I was very little, and so finally in the second grade I just read the thing. In the third grade I went through a really intense Bradbury phase. Then the requisite Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris, and Stephen King phases in elementary school. A Margaret Mahy phase. The Changeover still slays me. There’s not a wrong note in it. A Dickens phase after that. Dickens and King have so much in common.
There’s sort of a blank after that, because a lot of people in my family were dying and all I remember are funerals. Then a big Sébastien Japrisot phase in junior high. I once chased my teacher around the classroom for his copy of Trap for Cinderella. He gave me a first edition copy of A Very Long Engagement as a graduation present. My husband is a horror writer, but I’m the one who got him to read du Maurier. I guess the theme here is a Gothic one: secrets, monstrousness, unspoken yearning. It’s part of how I see the world. I assume there’s some secret pain making people act the way they do. I assume everyone is wounded.
You have the Machine Dynasty series, Company Town, and the book you’re working on now for Tor. Which of your characters do you relate to most; or, which are closer to you, and why?
There’s a lot of me in Hwa. Not the self-discipline part, or the physical prowess part, obviously. Obviously, she’s a lot tougher than I am, a lot more able to inflict pain. She was based on the protagonist of Coffee Prince because I had done a graduate major in East Asian Studies with my first master’s and one of my instructors got me hooked on K-dramas. I wanted that combination of learned toughness protecting the last shred of innocence at someone’s core. What’s funny is when I did promotion for the book in Newfoundland, women who lived there told me that they thought of Hwa as a Newfoundlander first, because she was so tough, and particularly as a Newfoundland woman, because of how she used that toughness to care for the people around her.
And I had always thought of those qualities as being inspired from elsewhere. Shows how much I know, right? But our sense of humor is the same. When I read the screenplay for the Company Town pilot, what made me happiest was that they’d preserved the sense of humor. Well, that and the fact that she was still Korean, and they’d kept the sex workers’ union, and Daniel was Black. That’s not canonical to the novel, but I think it’s a great choice and a really subtle, layered role for a Black actor when those roles are still in such short supply. If you told me tomorrow that Daniel was being played by Lakeith Stanfield I would be thrilled. A workshop friend of mine always envisioned his character as Black, oddly enough. She’s dead, now. So, I like to think she was hanging over the writers’ room.
In your 2016 interview with PSTD, you briefly mention Shirley Jackson, saying “I think there’s this well of anger at the core of her work,” as well as James Tiptree Jr. Does your work often come from a similar well of anger? Is there personal catharsis or is it more of an intellectual engagement? Or do some stories tap into anger/emotion/the personal more than others?
I’m most articulate when I’m angry. People have a lot of different manifestations of anger, but mine is that I tell you exactly what I’m thinking. It’s surprisingly intimate. It requires a lot of vulnerability. I would argue that writing (or creating in general) requires that same vulnerability. It’s similarly intimate. I have a friend who won’t read my work, he says, because it would be too intimate. And I think this is what he’s getting at. (That, or he knows he’ll hate it, and also that he’ll be incapable of hiding it from me. In all likelihood it’s the latter.) But I can count on the fingers of one hand how many people have seen me truly angry. So, I suppose my work is a way of dealing with the things that make me angry, in a way I can share with other people.
But honestly, a book is like a dream: you don’t know what it’s really about until it’s over and you’re explaining it to someone else. When I go back over my own work from years ago, I see what I was trying to tell myself. That’s another way it’s like a dream: it’s a story one part of the brain tells to the other, in hopes of communicating something.
In your 2012 interview with Brenda Cooper on SFSignal.com you mentioned working on “a manual for feminist activism in the gaming community.” Did the manual happen? And, what are the most relevant or important intersections between feminist activism in the gaming community and feminist activism in the SFF community?
It didn’t! At least, it didn’t happen that I know of. I believe it was an academic project I was involved in. I think I’d remember if I’d done something that big! And as for your other questions, I’m not the best person to answer, because I haven’t been part of those spaces for a long time and I can’t give the most pertinent information. When I have questions about those issues, I defer to my friend Natalie Zina Walschots. She’s an expert, there. I’ve had her come in to give talks on gaming and game design to my Digital Futures class. Coincidentally, she has a novel coming out from William Morrow this fall, called Hench.
You tend to feature female protagonists. Is it important to write female protagonists, or is it just a matter of what feels right for the story?
I really struggled to write women for a long time. I was better at writing men. At least, I felt like I was. I should let the reader be the judge of that. I think before that, I was dealing with a lot of internalized misogyny. Whenever I found mainstream commercial novels by women, as a child, they didn’t feel like they were about the kind of woman I could ever be, because they were about these beautiful women who everyone liked. I wish someone had given me Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy and Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin and Shirley Jackson when I was much younger. Maybe adults were afraid of giving me books that had rape in them, or something. In my experience people are afraid of letting girls read about things that might actually happen to them. If they read about it then they might actually get angry, and organized, and we can’t have that. The whole history of Western literature is dotted with pearl-clutchers pathologizing what girls are reading, for that reason. They’re so fucking scared of us being smart.
I actually had the same thing with mainstream American TV—I didn’t feel like I’d seen women who felt like me until I started watching things like Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell or Serial Experiments Lain. In the nineties, there was this string of anime where women got to be talented and fucked-up and question why they were even alive. And you could say the same about Buffy, I suppose. But I couldn’t watch BTVS when I was in high school. My parents didn’t have cable. They didn’t have high-speed Internet for a long time, either. It was literally easier for me to watch fansubs bootlegged onto VHS tapes than it was for me to watch shows aimed at my demographic. I didn’t actually watch BTVS until I was in university and the series was almost over. I was at a party at this crumbling farmhouse and someone had the DVDs. The next day I woke up earlier than everyone else because I was sleeping on the floor, and so I started watching them.
You also utilize a diverse array of characters, from Khalidah and Song in your Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocitiesstory “Death on Mars” (reprinted in Clarkesworld in 2018), to Company Town’s Hwa, and more. Is this simply a question of representing demographic realities? Or is there more to it?
For one, there’s a local influence, in that I live in one of the most diverse cities on Earth, in Toronto. Immigrants make up 46.1 percent of Toronto’s population. Visible minorities make up 51.5 percent. We have two Chinatowns, two Koreatowns, two Little Ethiopias, and the second-largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran, both Persian and Kurdish, who occasionally refer to it as “Tehranto.” The city hosts the largest festival of Caribbean culture in North America. This is why Toronto plays the future on Star Trek: Discovery and The Expanse and Pacific Rim. Toronto looks like the future because diversity is the future.
So, I guess that’s just how I’m used to seeing reality. That’s my neighborhood. Those are my students. Probably around six or seven years ago, I gave a talk at the University of Toronto. This class had read vN and they had me come in. And I got asked about what I was working on next. At that point, Company Town wasn’t really finished. I said I was working on a cyberpunk novel about a biracial Korean-Canadian woman living on an oil rig in Newfoundland. And after the talk, this small group of East Asian undergrads from within the class came up and told me how excited they were for that book. “No one writes about us,” was how they put it. That’s thankfully no longer the case.
My hope is that those students and others like them can find books that speak to them, maybe by Fonda Lee or Sarah Kuhn or JY Neon Yang or Malinda Lo, or maybe by someone just starting out. Maybe one of those students or their peers has already written the book that they needed back then, and if so, I hope that they get the full force of their agency and publisher and marketing team behind them, and they get the chance to find their audience.
Are there specific challenges or hazards to writing characters of color? And how do you navigate those challenges?
There are. But those are different challenges every time. It’s not like there’s One Weird Trick or something. The moment you believe that, you’re just making another assumption. Recently for work I was asked to write a suite of stories set in a region not my own, and featuring a variety of countries that speak multiple languages and have wildly diverse demographics on every level. And it was a client I’d worked with for months, but they asked for a tight turnaround and there wasn’t time to read-in other writers, because of the vetting process. So, first, I asked that they do a sensitivity read on my work when I turned it in. Second, I researched each story and character individually rather than looking at the region as a whole. And that research brought me up short—I was researching rights for queer and trans people in one country and I found they were (thankfully) better than I’d expected. Those expectations were my baggage to unpack.
In 2017, I was doing a luncheon event for Company Town with the Ontario Library Association, and a young Southeast Asian librarian asked me what gave me the right to write Go Jung-hwa. I mention this because it was really brave of her. I was the guest of honor, and she was going out on a limb and using her position to challenge my position of privilege in front of this room full of her peers. But that’s exactly what someone paid from the public purse should be doing—they should be advocating for their community and asking tough questions.
For a moment I just stood there gawping like a goldfish, because no one had asked me that question before. Ever. I didn’t have a clever answer. I didn’t have a talking point. And finally, I just said, “Nothing.” Nobody gave that right to me. I shouldn’t have presumed to have it—that presumption was, however unintentionally, the legacy of a colonialist mindset, or a settler mindset, or just cultural tourism or dilettantism. At best it’s what Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism.” I had to own that and accept it in front of that crowd. I never thanked her for that moment. I should have. She took a social and professional risk there that no one else did. But in that spirit, I would encourage other librarians and other educators to do the same, in her position.
You do a lot of research for your work and for your writing. You even talk about some of the research on Afghan food you couldn’t fit into “Ishin,” in your SFSignal interview with Charles Tan. What are some of your favorite researched bits that never made it into your fiction?
I wouldn’t call this a “favorite” bit, but there was an unexplored plot element to Company Town, wherein the reason Jung-hwa and her brother Tae-kyung were so proficient in TKD was that they were training for the opportunity to repatriate to South Korea via military service, before her brother died. It was a plot her older brother hatched to get them out from under their abusive mother’s thumb. Which brings me to one research pathway I followed but didn’t belabor the point of: I looked up child abuse stats in South Korea.
I kept seeing moms slapping kids as a joke in K-dramas, sort of like how Homer used to choke out Bart in the early seasons of The Simpsons. So much of humor is exaggeration, though, soI hoped that was just a caricature. But PubMed has a lot of literature on the subject. There’s a lot of recent scholarship on it with regard to the relationship between abuse and suicide. In 1960, there was a law codified that allowed parents to physically discipline children. In 2019, efforts to repeal it were met with vocal resistance. A government poll said that over 78 percent of parents believed corporal punishment was necessary. Between 2000-2017, there was a tenfold increase in reported cases of child abuse. I could go on. But for all that research, I was really deliberate about never depicting Hwa being abused as a child. It’s a violent book, but there are certain things the audience never witnesses. Hwa herself never refers to it as “abuse.” It just sort of leaks out around the edges.
As someone specifically writing SF whose fiction has been recognized as delivering those captivating SFnal ideas in the context of solid storytelling, how do you balance the two, craft-wise? How do you write a strong narrative while also giving it a core of great science-y science fiction?
I tend to think of characterization and narrative coming first and then the science-y science. The thing is that the state of the science-y science might change: you might run across something in Discover or Nature that gives you an update on the technology or the science, and have to change it. So, it’s best to give yourself wiggle room there. With a solid character and a solid story, the reader will spend time with them during the exposition. The reader has to enjoy spending time with them, first, and care about their problems. Nobody wants to spend time with someone they don’t enjoy, and they really don’t want to spend time with someone they don’t enjoy as that person spends four pages explaining what every single goddamn deck of the ship is for. Did anybody watch ER so they could learn how to take out an appendix? No. They watched ER so George fucking Clooney could tell them how to take out an appendix.
Your career story is a bit unusual—meeting Ursula K. Le Guin and being inspired by her to take writing seriously, then getting into the workshop group founded by Judith Merrill. So many writers start off in their basements, alone, often not even knowing that a “writing community” exists. Do you feel like the writing community in general is helpful to folks who want to break in?
I think finding a supportive community of any sort is helpful. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a writing community. Finding a group of people who see you and validate you and who encourage you to keep pushing, that’s what’s important. I hesitate to describe “the writing community” as any one thing. I think that’s very different now from when Judy Merrill started the Cecil Street Irregulars; now there’s a functioning Internet. A lot of writers now, their first “writing community” is their fandom, and the fanfic community in that fandom. I know that was true for me. That was where I first felt part of a community.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, from when I was child. And it was really important that I play to my strengths, otherwise I wouldn’t get any financial aid for school. I had that drilled into me from when I was very young. I couldn’t really afford to try a lot of things and fail at them. So, I had a lot of support in focusing my talents as a teenager, which isn’t true for a lot of people. I wrote my first novel when I was fourteen, basically on a dare from my Grade 9 history teacher. I never had anyone telling me I couldn’t do it, or that it was a stupid idea, or that I could never make a living at it. So, I had plenty of self-doubt and hang-ups about other things, but not about my work. But for a while there I was getting some stories loved and appreciated by one community and having other stories just ripped to pieces by another. And I needed both. I was like the person at the beginning of a kung fu movie who thinks they’re hot shit in their village and then they meet a real master and they just get bodied, over and over. Like Leung Chang in The Prodigal Son. I could hit hard, but I had no technique. This isn’t to say that my workshop was cruel, or punitive, or unsupportive. But I couldn’t get away with anything. My tricks didn’t work.
Since you are an anime fan, I’m curious, what are a few favorites that people may not know about, and why? You have mentioned Ghost in the Shell elsewhere, as well as Cowboy Bebop.
I’ve written a lot about my affection for Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Cowboy Bebop, but I don’t think a lot of people know how deep my love for Avatar: The Last Airbender runs. It’s a show a lot of people love, but for me it was a huge education in basic storytelling principles. From worldbuilding to characterization to even how to compose something visually, it’s such a master class.
Take Zuko’s entry at the top of the first season: he arrives on this huge cruiser. But by the end of that season, he and his uncle are on this tiny little raft. Big boat to little boat. The whole arc of his season is right there. And the show is full of stuff like that: you ever notice how both Zuko and Aang get nailed by Azula’s lightning in the exact same spot? They have matching wounds. Then you have this exploration of colonialism and foundational narratives, and the role of storytelling in both national and personal identity, from a genocide survivor desperately clinging to his roots, to an athlete trying to shuck off her parents’ narrative of disability, to an entire country realizing that what is essentially the Co-Prosperity Sphere is just an unsustainable dream of avarice. It’s a brilliant show.
Except for that fucking Lion Turtle Ex Machina, at the end. Christ, what a cop-out. It’s like winning the World Series on a bunt. Instead of having our hero explore his limitations, this ancient mythical creature that has never been mentioned before shows up and hands over a McGuffin—which has also never been mentioned before—that makes the plot resolve bloodlessly. Without ATLA we wouldn’t have Adventure Time or Steven Universe or the new She-Ra: shows for kids that trade in very adult themes.
But those other shows nailed their endings in part because they raised the stakes and killed some characters. I hope someone in the writers’ room for the Netflix adaptation sends this to their producers. (Now there’s a job I would kill for, which should go to an Asian writer instead.) Just fucking kill Ozai, guys. And better yet, have Zuko do it. Ozai and Ursa killed Azulon, so having Zuko kill Ozai is actually just a poignant repetition of Fire Nation history. The world needs more stories about young men withdrawing from a hateful ideology and having the courage to utterly annihilate the adults who indoctrinated them into it.
When you look at your body of fiction to date, do you feel like there are specific themes or ideas that you usually gravitate toward?
What I’ve heard people say is that my work gravitates toward issues of the body and identity. I wrote a lot about that in my first master’s thesis, with regard to cyborg bodies, so I think that’s pretty accurate. My favorite reviews are the ones that pick out issues that are swimming below the surface of the book: there are a lot of reviews of Company Town that talk about how violent it is, but very few that talk about how it’s about the experience of feeling invisible, feeling ugly, feeling as though you have no place. There are a lot of reviews of vN that talk about the body horror of a little girl eating her grandmother alive, but very few that talk about how internalizing that grandmother’s voice is a metaphor for intergenerational trauma, or how Amy has to live with a very real presence in her mind that is constantly trying to take over by telling her to die.
Your more recent stories are “Blue Lotus” in XPRIZE’s Current Futures: A Sci-fi Ocean Anthology and “Viral Content” in the free-to-read Take Us To A Better Place anthology published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. What is important to you about these two pieces? What do you want readers to know about them?
“Viral Content” is about a virus that escapes a detention center, where it emerged as a result of inhumane conditions, and is strong enough to wipe out the high school football players who were volunteering there as part of a church group. It’s one of mine that’s a little too on the nose, in terms of what we’re living through at the moment. I told RWJF that I wanted to write a short story about a pandemic happening just as the CDC hits its funding cliff. “That’s pretty specific, are you sure?” they asked. “Pretty sure,” I said.
“Blue Lotus” is actually a sequel to another story I did for MIT Technology Review, called “Tierra y Libertad,” about a person who essentially profiles artificial intelligences for the UN, in an effort to determine if sentient consciousness is emergent within the system. Like Asimov’s Susan Calvin, only not a spiteful caricature of intelligent women being frigid. “Tierra y Libertad” is about agri-bots going on strike on a California pistachio farm.
“Blue Lotus” is about undersea cables and perfume. I’m into fragrance. I use scent triggers for a lot of things. Some students of mine craft-brewed a fragrance for me, once, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. I only wear it maybe once or twice a year. When I visited the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, I had to physically pry myself away from their Kajal collection, Jihan and Sawlaj in particular. The guy at the Ex Nihilo counter probably hates me by now, because my colleagues prefer Amber Sky, but I’m more of a Midnight Special person and I can never buy anything. I’d really like to smell the Madeleine candle from Trudon, inspired by Madeleine de Maupin. I huff Diptyque at the duty-free. It’s embarrassing for everyone around me.
Since the first publication of your fiction, “In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock n’ Roll” in Tesseracts Eleven, you’ve had at least twenty-five short stories out, several novels, you’ve coedited an anthology, and you worked on two episodes for Orphan Black: The Next Chapter at Serial Box. Do you feel like your writing has changed in any specific or notable ways?
God, is it only twenty-five? I feel like such a slacker. I feel like it should be more. I guess if we’re counting the work I do for my clients, it’s probably more, but those will never see the light of day. Every year when the eligibility posts come out, I always feel like everyone else is writing so much more than me. I’ve never really tallied up the stats like that, in part because I knew they would expose my slacker-dom. It’s like looking at a credit card statement. I’ve still never placed a short story in F&SF, or Lightspeed, or Asimov’s, or Strange Horizons, or Tor.com. I sort of assume no one knows I exist because of that. I’m always surprised when someone says they know my work. I’m not popular. I’m not cool. I’m an acquired taste. I’m niche. I’m like some weird bootleg mixtape your cousin shares with you and you’re listening to it on a long drive thinking, why the hell would he give this to me? Who the fuck does he think I am? But eventually after a thousand miles you might like it. That’s how I think of myself.
In terms of how my process has changed, I would say that I make decisions faster, now. Part of that is neurochemical. I used to dither, worrying that the reader needed to know how characters got from A to B. Unless getting from A to B furthers plot, develops character, or builds the world, they don’t. No one cares. Jump cuts exist for a reason. Most of what I cut are the throat-clearing pages when I’m getting in my own way. Now I’m more deliberate about staying out of my own way from the beginning.
You have How to Future coming out with Kogan Page Inspire, “A practical, tactical guide to exploring possible landscapes of the future . . . ” which you did with Changeist cofounder Scott Smith. What are you working on now, or what do you have coming up that you want people to know about?
Well, the conclusion to the Machine Dynasty series, ReV, is coming out in July. How to Future is coming out in September. At the moment I’m working on a novel for Tor, with Miriam Weinberg, that’s sort of a cross between Uncanny Valley and And Then There Were None. It’s very funny, and very violent. I enjoy reading it out loud. Plus, work for my clients. Some short story commissions. I tend not to write short stories unless I’m invited. When I’m not working on that I have a fantasy novel I’m working on, just for myself. I’m not sure if people will be interested in it, since it’s a change for me. It’s set in a royal archive carved from a giant quartz termination growing off the side of a mountain, and it’s about an interpreter for a Chosen One radicalizing the secret police while working toward her degree. Also, there are a lot of dogs in it.