War and Peace: A Conversation with Anya Ow
Anya Ow was born and raised in Singapore. “At the time, Yio Chu Kang wasn’t as built over, migratory birds were more common, and you could fish in the canals closer to the aerospace park. It was a childhood that is perhaps less commonly possible in Singapore now that the country’s becoming more densely developed every year.” Her father was a robotics engineer, but he had been offered a design scholarship as a child (which he’d been too young to accept). He taught her how to draw when she was young—which turned out to be a useful skill later on.
At fifteen, Ow visited Melbourne and fell in love with the city. She studied law at The University of Melbourne, earning her Bachelor of Laws degree. “In Melbourne, it’s possible to practice law without having to work weekends, public holidays, and through the night like in Singapore, so I chose to stay.”
During her time at university, Ow took electives that were perhaps indicative of a future in science fiction. “I chose to write [an essay] about gold farming in World of Warcraft, demonstrating to my tutor how to use the auction house via a laptop in his office. I also took a modern literature elective, which introduced me to His Dark Materials. Until then, I’d never actually loved the books I’d had to study for literature in Singapore, where I think the most modern book I read as part of the syllabus was a collection of WWI poems.” She earned her legal practice diploma from Leo Cussen Centre for Law and later, after giving up practicing law, earned a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design.
There were other hints that Ow might end up with a writing career. She joined a writer’s club in junior college in Singapore, and in university she took a creative writing elective as well as a writing extended fiction elective (read: novel writing). “For the extended fiction course . . . you did have to submit a detailed outline with notes. This had never been my process as a pantser, and I still can’t write that way. In the end, I submitted a binder full of drawings and random notes made with Microsoft Word and got an A.” She spent time as a paralegal, where she listened to classic science fiction on audiobooks, as the company allowed employees to wear headphones while sorting files.
Anya Ow eventually became a graphic designer and illustrator for an ad agency, but her time studying and working in law had been interesting. “One of the first cases I studied in Melbourne Law School at the time was Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), overturning the ‘terra nullius’ doctrine and recognizing precolonial land interests of First Nations people. A lecturer who’d been part of the earlier Yorta Yorta case came in to give a talk about their struggle against colonialism, none of which I’d known about at the time. We studied civil rights law, feminism, environmentalism. Classes were sometimes interrupted by anti-war protests. There were nude demonstrations, including one more recent one about fossil fuel investment. It was a great formative experience, especially as a writer. Design school, fun as it was, had nothing like that. Also, in University of Melbourne’s free Student Union library, I read The Sandman series for the first time.”
Anya Ow hit the genre writing scene in 2016 with four shorter fiction publications, including one at well-regarded novella market GigaNotoSaurus and one at pro market Daily Science Fiction. That same year, Less Than Three Press published her novel The Firebird’s Tale. Since then, she has had short fiction appear every year across a range of venues, such as LampLight, Kaleidotrope, Andromeda Spaceways, Uncanny, Fantasy Magazine, Asimov’s, and others. Her 2018 story “Eight-step Kōan,” published in anthology Sword and Sonnet, earned her an Aurealis Award nomination, and her Strange Horizons story published the same year, “Big Mother,” appeared in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2019. In 2020 Neon Hemlock published novella Cradle and Grave. Her latest science fictional venture is Ion Curtain, “a high-octane space opera set in a post-Russian world,” just out from Rebellion imprint Solaris. “Set in a future where people have invented a way to explore the stars, it’s an enemies-to-lovers queer story about space espionage, rogue ASIs, and heists.”
Anya Ow lives with two cats, Russ, “an elderly Birman cat with food allergies and a terrible addiction to tuna” and Pascal, “forever kitten-brained ginger domestic shorthair with one (1) brain cell, imperfect object permanence, and an incorrectly installed cat operating system.”
What were the stories or books that were important to you when you were younger, that may have ultimately led to writing?
I had access to both great school libraries and public libraries as a kid, had a secondhand bookstore on my travel route home from school, and parents who were willing to buy me books, so for a while I just read anything that looked remotely interesting over the winding bus rides home. Most of it was SF&F. One of the earliest fantasy books I read as a kid was Journey to the West / 西游记—it remains one of my favorite books of all time, a long tale about how a monkey born from a rock could wreck Heaven and end up pushed into a found family escort quest that turns into his redemption arc. I devoured Water Margin, the Condor Heroes books, Discworld, Pern, the Belgariad, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes, Fullmetal Alchemist, and more.
It was the Forgotten Realms that finally got me to write fiction that wasn’t for school. I loved playing the Baldur’s Gate game, started reading some of the books out of curiosity, and ended up writing a lot of terrible fan fiction. I think I was fifteen. It didn’t occur to me for a while to try and write or publish original fiction, and even then, it didn’t occur to me to try submitting things for publishing until 2016. I don’t recall seeing SF&F books written by people like me while I was growing up, and I didn’t read that many short stories.
Your short fiction started coming out in 2016, and you have thirty (and counting) short stories published. You also had novel The Firebird’s Tale come out in 2016. Has your writing changed in important ways since then?
The Firebird’s Tale and the other 2016 short stories were the first time I’d had work go through professional editors. It was a revelation. I had no idea until then that I had so many weird writing habits, or that a lot of the way I’d been taught English in secondary school was no longer correct. The first draft of The Firebird’s Tale came back with so many corrections that at some points the manuscript was a sea of red. By the time I reached Cradle and Grave it wasn’t so bad, but Neon Hemlock Press’ editors also helped me shape the book to its final form and become a better writer. Finally, Ion Curtain is now much better than the original draft that was sent through to Rebellion Press’ editors. Input from editors has been the main reason my writing has improved.
Further, in recent years I’ve tried to diversify what I read by reading more BIPOC authors, and by reading more long-form journalism. I’ve been more conscious of trying to write about social and political matters that I find important, particularly regarding climate change.
I hope I’ve improved. Or at least, now have fewer weird writing habits.
Are there important differences in the way you approach writing novels compared to the way you approach shorter work?
My writing process is the same regardless of the length of the work, as I’m a pantser. I can’t write to outlines. Now that I have a better grasp of story architecture, I can roughly know whether the vague concept I have in mind when sitting down might work out to X number of words, but I’m usually wrong.
Further, a lot of my short stories were written as I was thinking about something I want to eat (Siew ngap in “The Same Old Story,” Peranakan food in “Seven Parts Full,” xiaolongbao in “Umami,” tau hway in “Garuda,” etc). This is not how Ion Curtain is written. People who have only read my short stories might be surprised how Ion Curtain is not food-centric at all.
Do you feel that having a successful short fiction career helped you to find an agent or sell your novel?
Yes. In 2016, I’d just decided to try submitting The Firebird’s Tale to various venues for publishing, and while waiting I thought I’d try writing and submitting short stories. I’m not sure where I heard it from, or whether it’s even true, but I read at that point that having good credits was a big help in querying or trying to submit novels, so at the start I told myself I’d try to pick up at least three from a list that I really wanted but it’d be OK if I couldn’t get anywhere.
I was lucky to have four short stories picked up and published that year, including one in GigaNotoSaurus—which I didn’t know was run by Ann Leckie. When I saw her name on the payment, I got a shock: I’d just bought another one of her books at that point and was wondering what had gone wrong. I have a number from my most-wanted list now, hoping someday for the rest (Clarkesworld is one! J). Having publishing credits made it easier to start seriously querying agents with various books, though it took a few years to finally find someone willing to take a chance on Ion Curtain.
For folks who haven’t read your short fiction, if they were to look at one story, what would you want them to read?
“Fanspell: Flowers in Spring (RobYung, NSFW)” in Lightspeed. The story itself is not NSFW. It’s in many ways inspired by how I started writing. Fandom is what got me into writing regularly, particularly writing longer fiction. It is how I learned how to make my own kind of magic, but for a long time I wouldn’t admit it—only my closest friends knew I was in fandom. It remains amazing to me how people are more open about it now, even other published writers.
Are there themes or ideas you tend to favor in terms of your shorter fiction, and do those themes or ideas show up in important ways in Ion Curtain?
Climate change is a recurring theme in much of my short fiction—including in “Redline,” “The Same Old Story,” “We Are Still Here,” “Other Life Forms are the Most of Our Problems,” “Life in Achar,” and more. It’s less of a central background feature in Ion Curtain due to the space opera setting, but it does play a part in the backstory. I like to explore ideas and settings that are more obviously from my part of the world or from the world I grew up in, in worlds that are not so centrally Western. Much of Ion Curtain’s world is set in a universe where the UN has come to be dominated by Asian powers and interests, for good or for worse, and where galactic travel is largely shaped by open-source equipment from a megacorporation. It’s been fun to write.
Did you learn things from writing short fiction, as well as novella Cradle and Grave, that became helpful in writing Ion Curtain?
Writing short fiction for me is very much about being able to create compelling characters within a limited space, and with the large cast of Ion Curtain where most characters only have an appearance within maybe one or two chapters or less, I’ve tried to apply the same discipline and craft in making them memorable. When writing Cradle and Grave I wanted to create a world that was not obviously set in what used to be Southeast Asia—unless you know what to look for—with clues getting more obvious closer to the end of the book. Similarly in Ion Curtain, its world should hopefully look familiar, and yet reflect how the universe’s accessible galactic space travel has made its world more diverse without it seeming token.
I’ve seen this book described as a “military-style space opera.” What for you is the appeal of space opera, or the appeal of military/spy stories?
It’s probably a consequence of having played a lot of Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, Assassin’s Creed, and such over time—action-packed world exploration is why I’ve had fun playing those kinds of games. At the same time, however, I’m a pacifist—I feel it’s important that stories about war not only don’t glorify war but also show how absurd it is that war even still exists. Regardless of whether the story does or not—I’ve tried in mine—it’s a genre that makes great video games.
What was the initial inspiration for Ion Curtain, and how did the book develop?
Ion Curtain was inspired by series like the Expanse, the Imperial Radch trilogy, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes, as well as by stylized Cold War espionage films like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I originally began writing it a few years ago as just a galactic heist story about Solitaire trying to evade capture while trying unsuccessfully to sell the thing he stole to various vendors, but it soon evolved into a story about how one bad decision after another kicked off an intergalactic powder keg. The first draft of the story didn’t have Kalina—she was patched in after I realized the book likely needed a corresponding story set on the Federation side and from the point of view of a character completely different from Solitaire in almost every way.
The story centers on Kalina Sokolova and Solitaire Yeung. What are your favorite things about these characters, and what were the biggest challenges in writing them?
They are both meant to be highly competent, intelligent characters—which is also the biggest issue with writing them in a believable way that doesn’t make it look as though the errors or decisions they make are extremely avoidable. I’m not a huge fan of stories whose plots move by characters making one frustrating life choice after another, so I’ve tried not to write that into Ion Curtain, without making the problems they face appear too easy to solve. Kalina is also asexual, and it is just part of who she is without it having to be entirely what the character is about. As someone on the asexual spectrum those are the kinds of characters I personally prefer to read—characters who happen to be asexual, rather than asexual characters who happen to be there. I’ve tried to make that the case for her in the book.
The book also features a lot of interesting worldbuilding and inventive concepts. What are one or two of your favorite ideas or worldbuilding bits that you incorporated into the narrative?
Ion Curtain is in some ways about the flaw in human nature that is our tendency toward violence and our limited capacity for compassion, amplified in a world where a form of digital immortality in the form of whole brain emulation AIs has been created from people. I like exploring AI stories—they’re often about how the degree by which we value sentiency is a question of power.
Further, I wanted to look at a world in the space age where galactic political superpowers are no longer predominantly American or European for various reasons. Of the current operational crewed spacecraft, none are NASA’s: there’s Russia’s Soyuz, China’s Shenzhou, and the rest belong to some billionaire’s company (SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic). That’s one reason why the superpowers in Ion Curtain are the way they are.
What, for you, is important about this book—what do you want readers to know, beyond blurbs and reviews?
Ion Curtain, despite having several military characters and arcs, is not a story that celebrates the industry of war. Innovations driven by military or corporate interests tend to have unforeseen side effects in its universe, and open conflict is considered illogical save by militant fringe elements. It’s set in a world where changing shifts in political power on Earth have been reflected across the universe in different ways. It’s also the first book in a set.
I write what I like to read, so my books and short fiction are all personal for me in some way or another. I hope that comes out in my work, and that it might help readers enjoy their visits to any of my worlds.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like people to know about?
I’ve finished draft zero of the sequel to Ion Curtain and am now working on the third book, so hopefully that’ll be on the pipeline if people enjoy the first. I also have a few short stories due to be published later this year, including one about a cat demon’s first visit to a vet in CatsCast, and a satay-based story with Translunar Travelers Lounge, set in the same Peranakan wuxia ’verse as “Seven Parts Full” and “The Case of the Teapot of Enlightenment.”
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.