Your story, “Ace 167,” explores complex social issues. Why did you choose this setting to tackle those ideas?
The story was written when I lived in Detroit. This was the old Detroit, full of car plants and autoworkers. At the time the city was about 60% black. It’s a story about racism and also about the working class, written in a city that was almost entirely working class and which struggled with racism. In theory, the city was integrated. Many work places and neighborhoods were mixed white and black, but social lives were almost entirely segregated, which was hard, because all the best music was in black bars. At the time—the end of the 1960s—the city boiled with politics: the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. I mention this because the story was written in a time and place when people genuinely struggled to confront racism and to improve their lives. But the story turned out to be more about racism than the struggle against racism.
Why did I pick Venus? The story is about love, and Venus is the planet of love. I’m not sure why I made it the old, wet Venus of pulp science fiction. But I grew up with that Venus, and I liked it.
This story was first published in 1974. Do you feel we’ve made enough progress in the areas you illuminated?
No. There is still way too much racism in the US. You can see it in the hatred that many people have of Obama. You can see it in prejudice against immigrants and Muslims. The gillies in my story are the hated “others,” who do jobs ordinary citizens don’t want to do. That’s a pretty good description of Hispanic immigrants. Without them, there would be no roofs in the Twin Cities metro area, and the restaurants would have to close. But still people get bent out of shape by the fact that there are new people in Minnesota. I’m not arguing that immigrants are justified because they do hard work. Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants and the US has always been a multicultural nation. New people enrich our society.
Using the image of the “blood eagle” to describe Ace’s gills was particularly striking. Will we, as a society, ever be able to handle such distressing changes to the way we look?
Oh yes. We’re going to have gen mod babies in the near future. First it will be to deal with genetic defects. Then people will try for blond, blue-eyed kids. Then we’ll have genuine cosmetic genetics: people who are seven feet tall with feathers instead of hair. Why not, if we can do it? Will we modify humans so they can work underwater? Maybe, though producing a double respiratory system—lungs and gills—is likely to be difficult.
A trained-fish act sounds pretty entertaining to me. Did you envision any special tricks the performers would do?
I don’t know anyone training fish on Earth right now. But if you can train worms to run a maze, and this has been done, then I imagine you could train fish. But I’m not sure what you could train them to do. Run mazes? Press buttons? Come and fetch? Octopuses can learn to open locked boxes. I bet you could train cuttlefish to change their colors and the patterns on their skin. Of course, now we are talking mollusks, not fish.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I got laid off three years ago and decided it was time to retire, given the job market. So I am finally writing full-time. It took me almost three years to relearn the habit of writing regularly; I think I have it down now. My current goal is to complete unfinished stories and get them out. Most of this work is novelette length; and many of the best story markets now are online and want stories under 7,000 or 4,000 words. So my plan is to relearn writing genuinely short fiction. It may be science fiction rather than fantasy. I like fantasy and have written a lot of it, but I am in the mood for science fiction. There may be an argument for short fiction about technological change. The world is going to change in so many ways that it might be easier to pick one change and focus on it at a short length than to try to imagine a lot of changes happening at once, as they will.