Science, Math, Fiction, and the Oxford Comma: A Conversation with S.B. Divya
Born in Pondicherry, India, S.B. Divya moved to the US when she was five. She graduated high school in Minnesota, then did her undergrad at Caltech. Divya dabbled in one creative writing class during her sophomore year, but ultimately went for her computational neuroscience degree. She later earned a master’s in signal processing from UC San Diego. From there she went to work as an electrical engineer.
Since her early teens, she attempted to write one story a year. In 2011 she tried her hand at NaNoWriMo, while also trying to manage home and work life, but fell a few thousand words short. The experience hurt, but the urge to write lingered, so she bounced back. In 2013 she took Gotham Writers Workshop’s Science Fiction & Fantasy 1 class. In 2014 her first fiction sale, “Strange Attractors,” came out at pro market Daily Science Fiction.
2015 was a big year: Divya took the Level 2 class at Gotham, started as a slush reader at Escape Pod, and had two more stories out, both at pro markets: “The Egg” at Nature’s Futures and “Ships in the Night” at Daily Science Fiction. It was also the year she went to Condor in San Diego, her first SFF convention.
By 2016, Divya had a few short story sales and her novella, Runtime, hit the shelves, out with Tordotcom Publishing. She received an SFWA Nebula Award nomination for the novella and became coeditor of Escape Pod in 2017. In 2018 Escape Pod earned the first of two Hugo nominations for Best Semiprozine.
S.B. Divya, “Lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma,” lives with her family in Southern California. She’s been a DJ, an oil painter, and a mountain biker, and is into snowboarding, scuba diving, and more. She worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer in various fields, from machine intelligence to digital music. Her collection Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations came out from Hachette India in 2019. Machinehood is her debut novel, due from Saga Press in March 2021.
What were the science fiction books that were important to you when you first started getting into science fiction, and do you feel like people should read them, and do they still hold up?
The most influential authors during my formative reading years were Joan D. Vinge, Frank Herbert, and C. J. Cherryh. The books of theirs whose spines I wore through were Catspaw, Dune, and Cyteen, respectively, though I read many of their other novels. When I was drafting Machinehood, I went back and read the opening chapters of each of them to study how those authors had set up their stories, and I was still impressed by the writing. I think all three would hold up pretty well in 2021, though there are modern criticisms that could certainly be applied to them. Given the new Dune movie coming out later this year, I suspect a whole new generation will discover the novel, too. I only hope that those people read the second and third books, which subvert some of the more problematic elements of the first one.
You’ve been coeditor at Escape Pod since 2017. Has editing had an impact on your writing? Does being a fiction writer give you a different editorial perspective from editors who aren’t engaged in fiction writing?
I started as a slush reader at Escape Pod in 2015, and those years in the trenches definitely helped me improve my craft. Sitting in the editor seat has probably had less influence on skill, but it has given me emotional resiliency. Having to turn down other people’s good stories helped me internalize that rejections, especially at the editor level, truly are a matter of taste and not an indictment about quality. On the flip side, being an author gives me more sympathy for what my fellow writers go through in the short story submissions process. I try to be forgiving of newer authors and their inadvertent mistakes when it comes to process or protocol.
Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations came out in 2019. What was the process of putting together that collection?
The collection was a great experience! By sheer coincidence, when the editor at Hachette India reached out to me I was in Chennai for a family reunion. That meant that I could jump on the phone with her and not have to deal with the twelve-hour time difference. As someone who’s struggled with bridging two cultures—I was in India until the age of five, and the USA since—I was thrilled to have my fiction introduced to my birth country. A lot of my stories incorporate some element of that duality, and the ones in the collection are no exception.
I suspect if the book had been assembled today rather than in 2019, we would’ve had some Zoom meetings, but as it was, we managed everything asynchronously via email. Promotion ended up being minimal and very pandemic-style, as well, since I was in California and couldn’t attend in-person events. In spite of those challenges, I found the team in India to be very enthusiastic, responsive, and a pleasure to work with.
What, for you, are the top stories that you hope people will read in that book—the stories that you are most proud of, or that are most important to you?
The stories I’m proudest of are “Binaries,” which packs a lot into a very small package; “Nava,” which has some big far-future ideas that I love; “Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story,” which is set in Bangalore, uses lots of hard science, and is stylistically my homage to Tiptree; and “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse,” which I wrote in response to the political turmoil after the 2016 US election. All four are deeply geeky and science or tech heavy while also “punching you in the feels,” as one of my readers said. If I had to describe my brand of fiction, that would sum it up.
You are an avid reader, a scientist, and a science fiction writer. Some people talk about science fiction as being a conversation, and science fiction authors often write books in conversation with or in response to other books. Do you see a relationship or conversation between your novel, Machinehood, and specific titles?
If anything, Machinehood is in conversation with pop culture and Hollywood depictions of artificial intelligence as well as biotech. Part of that comes from my educational background. Having a degree in a subject (in my case, computational neuroscience) makes it hard to accept unrealistic scenarios about that subject. In this novel, I tried to extrapolate from current technology to show what AI and cybernetics in our lives is likely to look like over the rest of this century. It’s an alternative to the polarization in movies—either the very evil (The Terminator, The Matrix), or the very victimized (A.I., Ex Machina).
In terms of books, I see this novel as something of a prequel or precursor to the story told in Annalee Newitz’s novel, Autonomous. They cover very similar themes, but mine is set about half a century earlier, with less development having happened on various fronts, including AI. That said, I had already drafted my novel when I read Autonomous. I can’t call my book a response to it, but I think they make for an interesting pairing.
Machinehood is your first novel out, but not your first book. Besides the collection and the recent Escape Pod anthology, you had a novella, Runtime, in 2016. Are there important differences in the structure, approach, or writing between the novella and Machinehood?
Short answer: Yes! Writing Runtime, which was on the shorter end of novella length, and required a vastly different skill set. I naïvely thought that writing a novel would be like writing a few novellas, but it’s an entirely different experience. Writing a novel requires far more complexity of plot and character development. I especially learned my lesson that spending time outlining up front can pay a lot of dividends for long-form storytelling. Machinehood went through five or six major revisions before it went to publishers. In contrast, Runtime went through one. The novel I’m currently working on is based off extensive planning. I don’t know yet if that means less time spent revising it, but I hope so.
One of the conceits of Machinehood is the way violence as entertainment meets gig economy culture, resulting in a system where body-guarding is partly about performance, and can be impacted in important ways by audience reaction. Is this a sly polemic against violence as entertainment? Is it a criticism of the direction of global economics? Or is it just a fun science fictional conceit, with no intentions around making any kind of statement?
It’s definitely intended to make statements, both the polemical and the critical. It’s also a commentary on our social media-obsessed culture. In the story, bodyguard work and the protests against corporate interests are funded largely by donations from the public, who can watch all the violence live via public drone swarms. I don’t know if this will actually come to pass (I hope it doesn’t), but it seems like a possible outgrowth from where we are today, especially if, as I imagine in the novel, we also develop biotechnology that makes it hard to do lasting physical harm to each other. I find that my favorite science fictional ideas sit squarely at the intersection of fun and meaningful. The former drives the plot, and the latter provides the story. At the end of the day, what I care about most—as both reader and writer—is how the conceit affects the characters, and it’s hard to show that without making some kind of statement.
In your Analog interview you talked about coming back to the question of “what it means to be human” in your fiction. Are there important or specific ways in which Machinehood is the evolution of exploring this question through your work?
In this novel, I’m considering where the line is between biological and artificial people, and whether a line should be drawn at all. One of my frustrations with Western literature is how mired it is in dualistic thinking. I prefer the continuum of Eastern philosophy, which I think meshes well with quantum physics and what is most probably the reality of our universe: That there are no hard boundaries in life. If so, what does that imply with regard to our treatment of different intelligent creatures? And how will we know when an artificial intelligence deserves equal treatment to a human being? Legal personhood has a long, complicated history, and the definitions and rights are continually evolving. At some point, we will have to examine complex intelligent machines and how they fit into our social and ethical framework.
Within a few chapters, there are a ton of science fictional ideas in Machinehood. Are there things in this book that readers might be surprised to find already exist, or things that are closer to happening than we might think?
Every technology in Machinehood is an outgrowth of something that’s happening in current research. Some of it is very cutting edge and only exists in labs in rudimentary forms, but all of it is plausible. Of the ideas that might surprise people, I suspect that smart matter is one. I based that on these self-assembling M-Blocks from MIT. The “pills” in the novel, which are more like micromachines or nanomachines, are based on ideas like these tiny drug-delivery robots.
Some of the technological developments from the novel are happening faster than I expected, too. Networking constellations are one example. Elon Musk launched Starlink in 2019. It’s not quite the same as what I envisioned for Machinehood, but it still took me by surprise. Drone swarms are also advancing faster than I’d anticipated. This is the peril of writing realistic near-future science fiction, but it’s also part of the fun.
What was the journey to getting this book published—how did writing it start, what were the biggest challenges along the way, and what did you learn from the process?
Machinehood started out as a short story. After a couple rounds of failed rewrites—including one for a workshop—I realized that my problem was that this story was trying to span a novel’s worth of content in five thousand words. The final product ended up drifting quite far from the initial concept, but everything has to start somewhere, right? I drafted the book in 2017 while not working a “day job,” which was great because I’m a really slow writer. In 2018, as I embarked on revisions, I went back to work as an engineer. I also developed chronic migraines that year. Both of those factors slowed down my progress considerably. My biggest craft challenge along the way was the plot. Machinehood is a philosophical novel at its core, but has a thriller structure. I probably should’ve started with an easier subgenre! It worked out in the end, but if I had to do it again, I would spend more time figuring out the details of the twists and turns before I started writing.
Beyond the blurbs and reviews, what is the heart of this story for you, what do you really want readers to know about Machinehood?
This novel explicitly bridges the cultural divide that I mentioned earlier. It’s the first time I’ve written a character (Nithya) who resembles the people in my family life. The romantic relationships in the book reflect my reality in Southern California—not only am I in a cross-cultural marriage, but many in my social circles are, too. The story moves around to places like Chennai and San Francisco, which mirrors the way I moved around as a child. My short stories have always had facets of me in them, but Machinehood is the first time I’ve captured so much of myself in one telling.
What else are you working on?
I’m hoping to have some new short stories published this year in various anthologies. They were originally slated to come out in 2020, but got postponed due to pandemic-related factors. Two of them are science fiction, and one is a fun little slipstream. I’m also working on a new novel set in the far future that’s an epic space adventure. I love working with near-future speculative fiction, but I admit that it’s been a nice break to spend time in a very different world, especially in 2020.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.