Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and what inspired “Deus Ex Arca?”
The idea for “Deus Ex Arca” popped into my head one afternoon when I was reading space opera. I started thinking . . . it’s a common narrative assumption that humans will one day obtain alien technology, either by discovering it in space, or capturing it in a war. Then, we’ll find a way to deploy that technology to our advantage, possibly with unforeseen consequences.
But such an idea seems awfully presumptuous. It assumes that aliens are so nearly like us, and so close to us in their arc of technological development, that their tools would represent only a small intuitive leap.
In reality, if alien civilizations do exist, their conceptual framework would most likely be utterly inscrutable to us; and if they have the technological prowess to reach earth in one piece, their technology is exponentially more advanced than ours. They would be working with different goals, different metaphors, different ergonomics. Their technology would seem like magic, and understanding it would require a total rewiring of the way we view the world. Their technology would most likely not even look like technology to us.
Just imagine a twelfth century farmer, who through some quirk in the space-time continuum, stumbles upon a working iPhone. How long might it take him to crack the password, fire up Safari, and start researching soil fertility? And just remember, the farmer actually has an edge in this situation, because he’s got a lot more in common with the iPhone’s creator: basic brain hardware, spatial reasoning skills, and number of fingers. A human who stumbles upon alien technology would not be assured these advantages.
So, I wanted to write a story that reflects the essential absurdity of humans interacting with alien technology, and illustrates the immense gap of consciousness between ourselves and an alien Other. With that idea came the image of the box: an artifact completely lacking in any kind of distinguishing physical characteristics. I wanted the box to defy rational or logical expectations; I wanted the box to be immune to the scientific method. Our impulse, naturally, would be to experiment with the box, trying to determine cause and effect. But the box breaks that concept. It resists and refuses any attempt at understanding.
(I should add the caveat here: none of this is meant as a criticism of stories where humans do successfully deploy alien technology. I love a good story, especially a good story set in space, and I don’t think realism should ever get in the way of telling one. I just wanted to try something different.)
I enjoyed the tone of this story, which ranged from the absurd (a soldier turning into a tuna sandwich) to the horrific (Jackson eating the tuna sandwich). Was this story particularly challenging to write? If so, how?
Actually, it was extremely easy. This was one of those stories that just happened. The first scene and the last scene were embedded in my initial idea for the story, unfolding in my mind in a very cinematic way. With the beginning and the ending in mind, I sketched out how to get from point A to point B, noting all the major events of the story, which at the time just seemed obvious. Then I sat at my desk and wrote the entire first draft in one sitting, probably six or seven hours, with a few breaks for snacks or tea. I wish writing could always be like that.
But regarding the range from the absurd to the horrific, I suppose one challenging aspect was continually resisting my own impulse to make the box act according to certain rules. Unconsciously, my writer brain kept attempting to create a pattern, to decipher the meaning behind certain destructive incidents, and to fit the effects of the box into a coherent logical narrative. And I kept consciously pushing back against that instinct.
Likewise, as the coherent structure of the world is eroded by disintegration and decay, I wanted that effect to be mirrored in the text. Jackson experiences a gradual unraveling of meaning, and I wanted the reader to experience that, too. So as the story progresses, the characters become disoriented, the narration becomes fragmented, and the narrative becomes more illogical. But I did run into the limits of this technique in the final scene; perhaps language is not the best medium for representing beings that are beyond language.
This is the second story I’ve read of yours with a child as the main character (“Celadon,” Clarkesworld, January 2009). You’ve got a talent for creating innocent and believable adolescent characters. I found myself rooting for Jackson throughout the story, but one question I kept asking myself as I read your story was: Why did the box choose Jackson?
I have several answers to this question. On one level, the box chooses Jackson because he is the first to touch it; perhaps there is some kind of immediate pair bonding that becomes impossible to undo. On another level, the box chooses Jackson because the box is Jackson, and it is only returning to him, as it has done so many times before. On an entirely different level, the box only chooses Jackson in this iteration, or version, or worldline; perhaps there is a box for every human on earth.
I think I chose Jackson because he represents for me a kind of primal innocence. When the story begins, he is in that raw early stage of identity formation, where likes and dislikes are simple and unquestioned, actions are impulsive, and the ego is immaterial. Perhaps because of this he’s better equipped to deal with something so irrational. But he’s also completely vulnerable.
The ending to this story comes full circle, which left me satisfied, but with questions about the next “test.” Do you think humanity will ever figure out how to reverse engineer the box?
No. It’s impossible. The box is absolutely antithetical to the current human conception of the universe; it will always be an inappropriate technology.
We might have gotten there on our own—but the massive disruption caused by a clash in metaphors precludes that possibility.
Does your work tend to explore particular themes?
Yes, I think so. At its heart, “Deus Ex Arca” is a story about alienation. Jackson’s alienation from his family and everyone else; even when he’s in daily contact with psychologists who hang on his every thought, he is overwhelmingly lonely. And the alienation we experience as humans on earth, being so very alone in the universe; we long for any kind of connection with the stars, with “something out there,” but that connection will most likely never be found.
For me, that incredible, unbearable isolation is the story’s emotional anchor. It’s part of why I chose to set the story in a place where I spent two years feeling extremely lonely and alienated myself. But isolation is a theme I return to in my work a lot.
I also write a lot about the relationships between siblings. I’m fascinated by that bond; it’s incredibly deep and unique, but not without unease, as our brothers and sisters are typically aware of our deepest vulnerabilities and darkest memories, and can trigger those moments without even trying. I write about siblings because for me that relationship is an access point to the most intense and authentic emotions I know.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this piece? What’s next for you?
I’ve got a few exciting projects underway at the moment—but nothing I can talk about just yet.
But since you mentioned my story “Celadon,” let me point your attention to two upcoming anthologies. Clarkesworld: Year Three is available now, and Aliens: Recent Encounters will be available in June. Both include “Celadon.” The second volume in particular might be especially interesting to anyone who enjoyed “Deus Ex Arca,” as it deals exclusively with innovative takes on the alien contact story. I’m quite excited to read it myself.
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