Falling in Love and the Collective Consciousness: An Interview with Elly Bangs
Elly Bangs was born in Seattle and lived there nearly her whole life. She earned a BA in creative writing from The Evergreen State College, roughly sixty miles away. She’s primarily worked in small nonprofit organizations, “usually in a role that combines doing all their paperwork with building their websites and databases. Right now I’m half the IT department at a local museum.”
Bangs has been writing stories since childhood. Her first publication, “This Must Be the Place,” came out in Strange Horizons in 2009. She became involved in the genre community via the monthly Two Hour Transport open mic reading series, where she learned about Clarion West, and finally attended in 2017. Afterward, she went to her first convention, ConFusion, with her Clarion West classmates.
In 2018 Bangs’ fiction gained traction, with “The Cool Kids” in Daily Science Fiction and “Dandelion” in Clarkesworld, among a number of other publications. “Dandelion” landed in the top six for the year in Clarkesworld’s reader poll and popped up in a host of respected short fiction review venues, effectively putting Bangs on the map. Her work continued to appear in venues such as Escape Pod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Quarterly, and more. Recently, her story “Deep Music” was published in the January 2021 Clarkesworld.
Elly once rode her bicycle alone from Seattle to the Panama Canal. She enjoys “bicycling, tinkering with circuitry, and baking pies.” She lives in Seattle with her partner and two cats: brother and sister, Alpha and Omega (respectively). “Alpha is intense and regularly rides on my shoulder while purring like a motorcycle; Omega is far more laid back, but she’s also the one in charge.”
Unity is her debut novel, an “apocalyptic cyberpunk” book centering on collective consciousness, due from Tachyon Publications in April 2021.
What were some of the most important genre works for you when you were younger, what did you get from them, and has your view of those books changed over time?
What stands out now is how much Philip K. Dick I read as a kid. It would be hard to name all the ways his novels, stories, and ideas have influenced mine, and I pay some homage to that in Unity. It’s not an uncomplicated love, given the amount of misogyny baked into nearly his entire body of work—which somewhat edited itself out of my memories as I grew up, and is a bit jarring to rediscover every time I reread his stuff—but his meditations on empathy and humanity, and the search for transcendent meaning in a troubled universe, will live in my head forever.
You attended writers’ workshop Clarion West in 2017. What were the most important things you got out of it and what was the most challenging aspect of the program for you?
Realizing that writing didn’t need to be a solitary thing—that it really couldn’t be—changed my life. There are a lot of different ways to find that kind of community, with or without any kind of workshop or convention or structured thing, but Clarion West was that for me. My classmates are still some of my closest friends. Their wisdom and perspectives are invaluable. Just having people around to encourage each other and share in the joy of success and the bite of rejection makes writing a whole different kind of thing.
The hardest part was going full-steam on short stories instead of novels, and to some extent learning how to write short stories at all. About half the short stories I wrote at CW were just radically abridged novels, it turned out.
Even before attending Clarion West, you had a story in Strange Horizons in 2009, and another a few years later in a Bikes in Space anthology. But your short fiction career really took off in 2018. Did Clarion West have a significant impact on your career?
Clarion West gave me a really good push, but around that time I also reconfigured my whole life to make a writing career possible. I moved into a small windowless room in the basement of a five-person house, where the math worked out for me to survive on a half-time job and put several hours a day into creative endeavors. I’ve been living on canned soup and writing as hard as I possibly can ever since, knowing that any day my luck could change and I could lose the time and energy I’ve been able to spend on this. So, yes—plenty of determination and a bit of sacrifice, but also plenty of luck, and the privilege of working in a field that pays well enough to do this.
What are a few of the most important things you’ve learned about writing or the industry through the process of getting your short fiction and your novel published?
When I started sending stories out in a big way, in late 2017, it was easy to feel like I was never going to get accepted, and it was pretty hard to know if I was making any progress. Publishing takes a lot of rejection, and a lot of persistence and experimentation, and in my case it took writing forty or fifty trunk stories. I knew all that going in, rationally, but I had to learn in the guts as well. That was the most important lesson. Then, once I had a handful of publications, I started to get a much better feel for what kinds of ideas most connect with people, and how to put my heart into things—and it was easier to trust the work would eventually pay off.
The most important thing I’ve learned about novel publishing is that it has several steps, of which writing the book is only one, and each step can take a year or two. It’s definitely worth it, but it’s also tough. Starting a new novel and having to trust the world to still be here in five years when it hopefully reaches readers is a tall order, some days.
To date you have over a dozen short stories out. Are there themes that you tend to be drawn toward in your short fiction?
Sooner or later I always come back to weird love stories. Water-monster-wranglers heartbroken over their exes; postapocalyptic cage fighters who fall in love with each other; million-year-old blob creatures who fall in love with toxic wastewater ponds at fracking sites. Love is a very weird thing, and its weirdness is something I could never remotely finish exploring.
That, and resisting fascism—but I’m really hoping I live to see that theme become less timely.
Of your short fiction out to date, which are the stories that you are most proud of, or that are most important to you, and why?
“Dandelion” (Clarkesworld, September 2018) felt like my breakout story, and I don’t know if I’ve really topped it yet. It’s the hardest science fiction I’ve ever written, and it gave voice to a lot of ideas and feelings I’d carried around for a very long time—and I think it pretty well achieved the kind of balance between hope and sorrow that I’m always aiming for.
“A Handful of Sky” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2019) is also up there for me, because it taught me how to revise. Scott is a brilliant editor, and we worked on it for roughly a year. The draft that ended up being published was probably the seventh or eighth at least—but every time I took it apart and put it back together, it came back twice as strong. I’ve been a lot less squeamish with my revisions since then.
Unity opens with these very damaged characters in a fairly bleak setting. What do you enjoy most about writing characters such as these, and why do readers love following damaged characters?
Personally, I feel like a damaged character in a bleak setting pretty much every day. I figure most people do at least some of the time. So, I find a kind of healing magic in stories about profoundly damaged people who are nonetheless loved deeply by people around them, who survive their bleak settings, and who grow and adapt through that—in ways that make them into people who aren’t exactly the people they would have chosen to be from the outset, but who are nonetheless extremely worth being. Stories like that have gotten me through a lot.
The characters in Unity are cut in quick, strong strokes: Within a few lines the reader gets a good sense of who an individual is. What is the key to strong characterization?
If I’ve accomplished that, it’s all a matter of ample revision. At some point I figured out it takes me longer to properly get to know a character than it does to write one draft of a novel. Once I really know them, though—like they’re family, and I can hear their voices in my head—they find ways to come through vividly in very small details. That’s when everything becomes fun, too.
There’s a lot of worldbuilding both on the page and behind the scenes, or between the lines, in this book. Are any of the major world elements drawing on or inspired by specific things?
There’s a lot I could name. Certainly a lot of contemporary climate anxiety comes through in all the underwater cities and desolate wastelands. Plenty of timely political dread went into imagining a future United States that collapsed under the weight of its imperial adventures, then splintered into a bunch of differently-dysfunctional nations (from the Free Republic of South Cascadia to the Holy Western Confederacy), each one trying to embody a different memory of what they think the USA had been.
The use of ubiquitous fusion power mainly to charge handheld electromagnetic weapons is meant as a reply to this idea I catch floating around sometimes—that limitless free energy, or any technological advance for that matter, would bring about world peace. We already have everything we need to address human problems like war, and until we do, it’s going to bend any technological solution we throw at it to its own whims.
There’s this concept at play in Unity of collective consciousness, but there’s also this aspect of fragmentation, and separation, even isolation; and the desire to reconnect. It’s very conceptual and even allegorical, but is it also personal metaphor? Or is it more about examining the human condition through a science fictional lens?
Both, I hope. On the personal side—I mean, I’m from Seattle, so it probably goes without saying that I’ve experienced a great deal of absolutely crushing, soul-deadening loneliness. I’m doing better now, but my twenties, when I laid down the bones of this story, were really hard years for connecting with people and feeling like part of the human race. When you have an experience like that—and when, at long last, you do manage to form good and strong bonds with other human beings—it turns up the contrast on everything and makes you realize what an oddity and a miracle it is that we’re able to communicate with each other at all. You realize language is telepathy-lite. If I’ve told this story properly, the metaphor is both personal and human-conditional, and the science fiction is a lens for examining one through the other and vice versa.
There are a number of interesting world details, such as automated distribution of antidepressants to manage widespread depression and agoraphobia. Are some of these elements cautionary, or perhaps even commentary? Or are they simply creative embellishments, without message or intended meaning?
For me, that particular detail was exactly half cautionary and half aspirational. Lots of people need pharmacological help to balance their neurochemistries, and would even in the most utopian setting. I want there to be a drug like the one Alexei takes to treat his suicidal ideation at the start of the novel, I want it to be that accessible, and I think these are reasonable things to expect to happen by the year Unity is set.
At the same time, I think American society is fairly hostile to our brains (chemically, sensorily, emotionally, socially, what-have-you), and getting more so—and the worse it gets, the more we’ll all need to modify our neurochemistries to keep up. If humans end up living permanently under water (or under ground, in microgravity, in ecologically devastated wastelands, etc.), I imagine the broad need for highly advanced antidepressants could become almost a kind of synthetic evolution. Which, in some ways, might actually be kind of cool. But I think the extremely brutal settings in Unity also speak to the need to protect and cultivate environments and societies that our minds can mostly withstand.
In your Civilian Reader interview, you talked about collective consciousness, saying that it hadn’t been explored to your satisfaction. Many describe science fiction as an ongoing conversation. Do you see a relationship or conversation between Unity and specific titles or stories?
I think of Unity as being in conversation with the whole trope of collective consciousness, more than with any one thing. That said, the Borg have to be the most widely recognizable example, they were my first introduction to the concept, and I remember how disappointed I was as a kid in the nineties when Trek mostly boiled them down to zombie horror; the collective seems a lot less like a single mind than an authoritarian regime made up of caged individuals.
So many of the collective consciousnesses in SF are like that, but I think we’re missing out on some far more interesting thoughts when we use “hive mind” as a shortcut to “scary and totally alien.” I would argue that a beehive is not fifty thousand lowly conformists, but a gestalt organism with a combined memory and algorithmic intelligence. I think human societies already have inextricable elements of collective consciousness too. We’re not just social creatures; we’re each basically incomprehensible without our connections to each other and our shared ideas. I see pop culture as our collective dream, and the Borg as a nightmare about communism (or corporate office jobs, or assembly-line work).
What is important or special about this book for you, what do you really want readers to know about it beyond the blurbs and reviews?
We are all living through an extremely heavy piece of history. I, for one, have survived this much of it because I had excellent stories and characters to lend me some strength, to remind me I’m not alone, and to tell me that a better and more just world is possible. I see it as my job as a writer to pay that forward, and that’s exactly what Unity has been about for me since the start. If it ends up being that for even one person, it will have been worth the truly embarrassing number of years it took me to write.
What else are you working on, what else do you have coming up that new fans can look forward to?
I spent most of 2020 working on novels—I’m now very foolishly attempting to write all three books of a fantasy trilogy more or less at once—but I’m making time this year to write stories again. I don’t have anything to announce yet, but I really hope to see readers among the ever-excellent pages of Clarkesworld and other short fiction publications in the near future.