How did “Love Might Be Too Strong A Word” start for you?
Like many good things, it began at WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, WI. I had a lot of really intense conversations about the ways in which different science fiction and fantasy stories radically transformed gender roles. If you’ve ever been at WisCon, you know that really powerful conversations take place there, which can go on until three in the morning sometimes. Somewhere during one of those conversations, I hatched the idea of a society where gender roles were inextricably linked to division of labor. I wound up writing pretty much the entire first draft on the plane ride (and long layover) going home from Madison.
There’re a lot of new terms for personal pronouns, sexual activities, and slang that you’ve created. Can you tell us a bit more about why you chose to use new pronouns and terminology?
I spent a lot of time sitting in the Chicago airport, waiting to change planes, coming up with the details of this society. A few things became clear pretty quickly: With six different sexes, everything would become a lot more complicated, and you needed six sets of pronouns to differentiate them. None of the pronouns should conjugate exactly like “he/his/him” or “she/hers/her,” or you would lose some of the jarring quality of them. Also, this was a group of people who were trapped on a spaceship for decades, and they were unable to have children—so their sexuality was completely separated from reproduction and entirely connected to cementing social roles.
Can you tell us more about the social castes in this world?
Part of the assumption of the story was that everybody on this ship had been grown for the journey to the new planet—and they had their roles set in stone, from birth. There’s no social mobility on this ship, because everybody has a job to do that’s essential to keeping them going. I imagined that, assuming they actually reached the colony world and everything went according to plan, they would land and the breedpods would open. And at that point, the new generation would be “born,” able to reproduce going forward. To that new generation of fertile children, the sterile people who got them to this planet would seem weird and pathetic—but the ship’s crew would mostly die of old age around the time the first generation on the planet reached puberty. (Except I thought maybe the Breeders, who’d be mostly in charge of raising these kids, might be engineered to live longer.)
What was writing this story like, organization wise? Did it take a long time?
The first draft just poured out of me. It was a really unusual experience—usually, a first draft takes weeks, with a lot of blind alleys. I wrote a long “backstory” document explaining the origins of the spaceship and the six separate castes, including a ton of information that didn’t make it into the final story. Being stuck at an airport and on a plane with nothing to do can be really great for your productivity. And then, of course, the revisions took forever, and there were a lot of kinks to work out. A lot of stuff didn’t really “click” for me until I realized that the Medieval tradition of Courtly Love was the closest thing to how these people use romance to escape from their horrible lives (but also reinforce hierarchies).
Why might love be too strong a word to explain Mab’s feelings for Idra? Reading the story and about these two characters really made me think there was real love there.
I think that’s partly just Mab being a hardened cynic. But also, it underlines the fact that “love” is a form of propaganda in the world that Mab lives in. When you read enough Sir Philip Sidney, you start to see Courtly Love as this oppressive weird pantomime, where someone who has tons of status pretends to be helpless while stalking someone who has way less power. Stella barely gets a word in edgewise in “Astrophil and Stella.”
What’s next for you, Charlie Jane?
I hopefully have more stories coming out soon, and I’m plugging away at a novel.