The subtitle “A Kango and Sharon Adventure” not only places “Cake Baby” within your previously established fictional universe, but also hearkens back to serial adventures of the past. At first blush, too, this story has the rollicking feel of an old-fashioned caper, although it also points towards contemporary concerns. What was the origin of Kango and Sharon, and of “Cake Baby” in particular?
Kango and Sharon came about as a result of the Cosmic Powers anthology that John Joseph Adams edited. The brief, as I understood it, was fun, irreverent space opera in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy and other similar stuff. I tried a few different approaches, which didn’t go anywhere. And then somehow, I hit on the idea of this pair of con artists who blunder through ridiculous situations. Part of what I loved about writing Kango and Sharon right away was their love for each other and their determination to be themselves, in the face of all this ridiculous absurdity. The first Kango and Sharon story is called “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” and it’s only available in Cosmic Powers, for now. As soon as I finished “Temporary Embarrassment,” I started writing a second Kango and Sharon story, because I loved writing them so much. And then I got about halfway through “Cake Baby” and had to figure out the ending—and I ended up putting it on hold for over a year, just because I had so many other deadlines going on. I was so overjoyed to return to “Cake Baby.” And now I’ve started a third Kango and Sharon story, although I keep putting it on hold because of the ever-present deadlines.
While spec-fic readers often suspend disbelief for aliens and spaceships, it’s the understated narrative voice here that allows those tropes to co-exist with “Best Dressed Dead Guest” lineups, offerings to both Hall and Oates, and a character who says, “Low Orbit is Mellow Orbit.” What was your process in building this world, and what role did it play in developing the voice (or vice versa)?
When I wrote “A Temporary Embarrassment,” I definitely wanted to pay homage to masters of funny space opera, like Douglas Adams and Harry Harrison. But I also spent a lot of time figuring out the rules in this world, even though it may not seem on the surface as though there are rules. Like, how did sentient beings settle all these star systems, and what kinds of loopy organizational principles could make sense in a far-reaching interstellar society? I have pages and pages of notes, which I should go back and re-read at some point. I tried to be very logical about building it up from the basics, and then when I was done, I had something completely ridiculous. The weird religion that Sharon belongs to, worshiping Hall and Oates, is the only familiar cultural reference I allowed myself here. Nothing else survives of our culture. I don’t ever want to cheapen that joke introducing a bunch of other silly jokes about (relatively) recent pop culture. (It does give the series a very slight Guardians of the Galaxy feel, though. And I keep writing scenes where Sharon goes to services at the Temple of Hall and Oates, but I haven’t found the right place to put them.) A lot of the humor in the series ends up coming from societies that have gotten pulled so far into their own bizarre logic that they’ve lost sight of reality, which is how you get the horrible party at the beginning of “Cake Baby” and the space hippies later on.
A recurring theme is the desire to cast off pre-determined identities. To offer only a few examples, Sharon was literally made to be a “party monster” but abandons that role, and the heroes seem to love disguises that allow them to play different roles. While Sharon, Kango, Jara, and Noreen form an unlikely family, Kango also tells Sharon that he and she are not friends because they travel together, but because they escaped together. What interplay do you see between present circumstances and past events on identity, including the tension between an individual’s own choices versus those choices that others have made for them?
That notion of choosing who you’re going to be has ended up becoming the driver for the whole series. In “Temporary Embarrassment,” Kango and Sharon have to go back to the planet of libertines where they were created and prove that they’re more than what their creators intended. But this seems to be something they need to keep proving again and again. This particular fictional universe seems to be full of people whose ontologies are so rigid that they need to control everyone they meet. Lots and lots of people want to exploit each other in the name of some absolutist ideology. The third Kango and Sharon story takes a very different approach to this theme. Kango and Sharon themselves, along with Jara and Noreen, are just trying to make some money so they can open a restaurant, and they come up with the most idiotic schemes to achieve this goal. But they care about each other and support each other, while the rest of the universe just wants to make everything and everyone conform to some pointless ideal.
There are many cultural references and symbols for readers to unpack, but at the center seems to be the debate in which Kango’s comically grim view of space offers a beautiful nihilism that triumphs over the Constantly Infallible Smarter Than Everyone Supreme Reasoner Mega Genius Droppoloorg’s banal platitudes of a low-key, low-orbit lifestyle. Of course, Frieda (f.k.a. Centripetal Cradle of Love) has actually used them both to engineer a “regime change” for her political and monetary profit. This set-up is open-ended enough to lend itself to many possible interpretations—from contemporary politics to divergent views of speculative fiction’s role—but is there a particular context that you had in mind when writing it?
I really wanted to find an ending that was surprising and funny, and weird enough for the set-up. The debate over whether people belong in deep space is, on its face, nonsensical, in a universe where so many people already live in deep space quite happily. The key to the whole thing, for me, ended up being the fact that these ideologues had stuck their children in a horrible basement somewhere under their space station, for the “crime” of being resistant to cosmic radiation. Jara, who was raised in another weird space cult, takes this very personally. And then the final twist is just the way things work in this universe, reasserting itself.
It usually seems that serious topics—like the tension between attractive despair and banal peace, and the use of it as a distraction—are addressed via “serious” (or at least dark) stories. “Cake Baby,” however, maintains a sense of humor and fun adventure throughout. What are your thoughts on using seemingly “lighter” methods to confront serious issues? Are there other sources that you think use this method well?
I’ve always found real life totally absurd, and sometimes absurdism is the only way to portray our world accurately. We all train ourselves not to see what’s right in front of us, all the time, because that’s the price of functioning in twenty-first century society, and meanwhile we’re so overloaded with information and opinions that we can easily start believing things that make no sense. A non-absurd approach to storytelling is merely contributing to the problem, in a lot of ways.
Finally, what can readers anticipate seeing from you next? In addition to concrete projects and releases, are there any new and nebulous ideas that you’re just starting to explore?
I have a bunch of stories coming up soon. I have a story in Boston Review’s special Global Dystopia issue, coming this fall, and Lightspeed is going to reprint my story “Captain Roger in Heaven,” which was in Catamaran Literary Reader in 2016. And probably by the time you read this, I will have handed in my second book to Tor Books, which is a more serious hard science fiction book set on another planet that humans have colonized long ago (but it’s still kinda absurd.)
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