Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Author Spotlight: John R. Fultz

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author John Fultz to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “The Taste of Starlight.”

I had to put this story down a few times while I was reading it because it was too much for me to stomach at once. You’ve done a great job at getting us inside Pelops’s skin while he experiences horror, revulsion, relief, to name a few emotions. Where did this story come from, and what was writing it like for you?

Thank you for that comment…it’s exactly what I was hoping for in my ideal reader. This story represents a departure from the kinds of tales I usually write (i.e. heroic fantasy and dark fantasy). It was a challenge for me to see if I could write a tale that achieves that intense level of disgust or anxiety. I wouldn’t want to meet the person who isn’t disturbed or “grossed out” by it. Like many of my favorite horror tales, it is definitely meant to disturb, and from your reaction, I can see that it succeeded.

Where did it come from? To be honest it was inspired to a large degree by Chuck Palahniuk’s story “Guts,” which is probably the most disturbing and visceral piece of fiction I’ve ever encountered. It literally makes people pass out during public readings. My goal was to achieve that kind of intensity in a science-fiction setting, and that goal was inspired by an offhand comment from editor John Joseph Adams in one of his interviews from a couple years back. The whole “Dr. Pelops” thing is reminiscent of my favorite horror writer Thomas Ligotti. He has plenty of creepy “Dr.” characters that show up in his surreal and metaphysical tales of cosmic horror. So there was definitely some Ligotti influence here, since I’m way more into his work than that of Palahniuk.

The second part of the question is interesting because I did make myself rather nauseous at various points during the writing of “The Taste of Starlight.” Seriously, I was not able to eat meat of any kind for about 24 hours after I finished the story. Once the images began to fade I was able to have a burger again. Overall, the experience of writing this story does inspire me to eat less red meat.

Once the sedative runs out, Pelops is forced to face his peers, his unintentional victims. He tells them the truth, and even weeps with them, yet that doesn’t help them accept the situation any better (naturally). Yet he doesn’t want them to judge him. He believes he’s doing the right thing. What do you think, from a moral perspective?

You’ve put your finger on the moral question at the very heart of the story: Do the needs of the many (the colony) truly outweigh the needs of the few (the ship)? Does “the mission” always take priority? Or should basic morality—human decency—outweigh all else? I think it’s more important for the story to pose that question than to answer it. Pelops certainly believes he’s making the right decision…but human beings often cloak their moral or immoral decisions beneath a mask of “doing the right thing” or “serving the greater good.”

We are a species that is prone to self-deception. We tell ourselves comfortable lies: “That war is a necessary war. Yeah, it’s too bad civilians had to die, but that’s war… We had no choice!” So in a way this story is about the lies we tell ourselves to justify our horrendous actions. If you consider the end of the story and the terrible discovery that Pelops makes, you might find that the story makes its own statement on these kinds of self-deceptions. Of course, it’s easy to judge people in these situations when you are not in them yourself. Who can say what he would do when faced with the prospect of his own demise? There are a couple of references in the story to forced cannibalism documented in the pages of history…there are many, many more to be discovered if one does the research. People do what they need to, for survival. That’s exactly what Pelops does, and what the few remaining colonists are doing.

And the justification of Pelops’ actions are what I found most frightening. Pelops could be any one of us, thrown into a terrible situation when someone makes a bad decision, like Captain Tyler, regarding the rations. Pelops claims the colony needs him to survive. Whether that’s true or not, do you think he’s convincing himself of that?

I think that, once he reaches a certain point, it no longer matters. He has become something else. He has traded his humanity for a certain type of bestiality…he has descended or de-evolved back toward a more primitive state of existence. At first he believes his own rationalization…but after awhile he’s just stark raving mad.

After his confrontation with Mewes, he considers his loneliness for the first time, and even of allowing her to join him. Ultimately, of course, that doesn’t happen. What kind of impact do you think his loneliness had on the choices that he made?

The loneliness is as damaging as the cannibalism is to his psyche. There is nobody to “share” in his crime (except his victims). Hence he creates his “bone-god” to share in his savagery. This is part of his return to the primitive. Humans are tribal/social beings – loneliness can and will drive you mad if you let it. It will kill you as certainly as starvation…it just takes a lot longer. Loneliness can also be the gateway to madness; that’s certainly the case here. There is nobody else to judge, condemn, or confirm him while he descends into this primal state of survival, so there is no accountability. Consider also that most serial killers are twisted loners.

Might he have created the god of bones as a way to honor those who have unwillingly died for him? Or is it because he needs someone else to take full responsibility for these murders?

This is a great question because it hints at what lies behind religion and the whole concept of gods: Does humanity create its gods so it will have someone to blame for its misfortunes? Or someone to justify its cruelties? Or because man cannot stand to be alone in the vast cosmos, so he creates cosmic “powers” who watch over and communicate with him? Perhaps the answer involves all three of these reasons. The easiest answer is that Pelops is simply, utterly insane. Yet there is more to it if you peel back the layers of his motivation. Once again, the humanity at the heart of this character is his drive for survival, his self-deception, and his drive to escape cosmic loneliness. He’s a mad space-cannibal with delusions of grandeur.

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.