The language of “Trouble Leaves a Scent Trail” is very precise, especially in terms of the tone of the story. With your history in linguistics, what was your approach in considering the possibility of an unintended lighter nature? Was there a happy medium with names and terms, or did you nail them down from the start?
The names evolved out of imagining a hive society. Each character has what amounts to a model and serial number, like Peacekeeper Gimel 300254. The Hebrew letter shows you how old the model is—Gimel Peacekeepers were designed way before Zayin Peacekeepers, for instance. The serial number shows how many of that model have been produced so far. I almost used Greek letters, but I decided Hebrew letters would be more interesting, and I also didn’t want readers to think it was a reference to Brave New World, with its Alpha, Betas, and so on.
It would be boring to tell a story using only job titles, so I imagined that each character would also have what I called a usename. Since these aliens communicate by scent, I chose strong-smelling things like AniseSeed, PineBark, etc. FreshPrawn and WetSand’s names also indicate that they’re from a coastal community. SweetGum and CedarWood have similar names because they’re clonesisters. I chose CitrusPeel for the main character’s name because I got a kick out of naming a hulking, armored cop after something you’d find in a bowl of potpourri. Also, “peeler” is an old British word for a police officer.
Lead us through the world creation. Where did you begin? What troubled you the most about “Trouble Leaves a Scent Trail”? Most importantly, when did you realize the animalistic element?
The starting point for this story came when I wondered if crime could ever occur in a hive society. If you imagine aliens that are less inherently individual than humans, could there still be enough motive to commit, for instance, a murder? When I began writing, I had no idea how the story would end, but as I went on, it came to me that even under conditions of low individual selfishness, there might be selfishness on the group level. Everything grew out of that. The different genotypes of ammet, which could be redesigned or discontinued or even recalled if they turned out to be defective. The communal living, with refectories and dormitories. The basic drive of every ammet to do its predetermined job.
The tricky part was figuring out how much individuality and personal motivation to give the characters. It’s tough to root for a character who doesn’t have any problems or yearn for anything, so I gave CitrusPeel some angst and pride about her antiquated genotype, and I gave her the desire to train a junior—the closest thing her species has to raising a child. And, of course, it was fun to make young ammets bouncy and enthusiastic, like human children.
When you think about hive living, ants come to mind, and the aliens in this story are heavily ant-inspired. The name I chose for them, “ammet,” is a variant of an archaic word for ant. The characters are all “she,” because they’re workers. They have six legs. They communicate by scent and leave scent messages for each other (they never had to invent writing!)
The biography on your website lists you as having been a linguistic researcher, balloon twister, and software engineer, while living in unique locations such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Edinburgh, Scotland. What—if anything—did these parts of your life bring to such a unique and innovative world?
Living in California made me aware of the problem here with invasive Argentine ants. Their colonies are so similar genetically that they don’t compete with each other, and this gives them a huge advantage over the native ants, which they’re displacing. This concept was a key part of my story. The ammets all call each other “cousin,” and there are no wars across the entire Continent because they wiped out the Foreigners long ago. The main character struggles with her identity as a Soldier in a society where she’s almost obsolete, except for certain roles in police work.
“Trouble Leaves a Scent Trail” is a reprint of yours from 2005. You’ve also been published in many magazines and anthologies, including “Best Of” collections. What inspired you to bring this story out and re-sell it? Could you explain the difference behind an original first sale and the thought process behind re-selling?
“Trouble” originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, which is published in Australia, and at that time it wasn’t available electronically the way it is now. “Trouble” got some recognition when it came out, but I always wished it could get a little more exposure. Later, when Lightspeed came on the scene, I was impressed and wanted to submit to it, but I was busy with other projects. Finally I realized, hey, Lightspeed does reprints!
What upcoming projects or publications do you have in queue?
I’m very excited to be finishing up Wily Things, a fantasy novel set in a land of humid bayous where the water can play strange tricks.
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