“Lifeline” takes a hard look at the social divide in the world you created. How did you come to address this issue through fiction?
I had a professor once who looked for a special kind of local soap in a gigantic Ghanaian market. The soap repelled mosquitoes and thus prevented malaria. But the vendors only offered him the “good” soap—Dove, I think it was. Maybe Irish Spring. It was better because it was American, and the special local soap was nowhere to be found. Certain parts of Africa have grown and flourished, but in Ghana you can still find this kind of post-colonialism right beside one of the best-performing stock indexes in the world. It stuck in my craw that a whole culture could subordinate itself to mine for no reason. And if I had enough money to travel over there and live in the manner to which I’m accustomed, I would be upper-class by default. That makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
Explaining the elaborate process involved with putting together a chicken salad sandwich and getting a fresh glass of water helped depict what day-to-day life is like for Habiba. What made you choose food and drink to shine light on her situation?
I believe we’re defined by how much we consider the needs of those below us—our employees, our children, our obstacles. Selfishness is a matter of forethought. As a missionary in the best and worst parts of California, I spent a lot of time around people of widely different social classes. Most people treat food as a right, whether they’re talking about tilapia or a can of off-brand tuna—and the closer they get to the tilapia end of the spectrum, the more they feel they deserve it. When I do that, I’m ashamed; when I see other people do it, I’m furious.
The adoption of less fortunate children became very trendy on New Dakar. Do you think something like that could ever catch on in our culture?
There’s no doubt we see people as a commodity. It’s the covenant of Cain: Betray your brother, and profit from it. By the most reputable numbers, about fifteen thousand slaves enter the United States every year—some to pick fruit, some to be forcibly trafficked between brothels and sporting events, some to serve as unpaid domestic laborers. That’s a low-end estimate, and many of them are underage. I spent two years as an executive for a student activist group, coordinating efforts with other organizations, and I saw a single trend permeating the activist community. People contribute the absolute minimum amount of time, effort and money, unless someone else is watching. Mostly, it’s to make themselves feel better. Cleanse your conscience for the price of your pocket change, and get a bake sale muffin in the process. So yes, people really are that selfish when it comes to doing good—and yes, we’re that blind when it comes to children’s welfare. I just showed my Scout troop the Kenneth Branagh film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Go watch it, then ask whether people could act as I’ve portrayed.
You don’t ever really reveal what the Lifeline between people is. Why did you choose to keep us guessing?
I was inspired by the classic Heinlein story “Life-Line,” in which a scientist invents a machine that can predict his time of death. He never explains how it works—how could he?—and it’s only important because of how people react to it. (Incidentally, my subconscious is really, really smart. Years and years after reading “Life-Line,” I remembered the story, but not the title or the author. The ripped-off title was a complete accident, so it’s good that our titles mean vastly different things. Ironic, really.) I felt it would distract from the idea that anyone in the world could be your best friend or your worst enemy. These connections exist; the Lifeline machine, however it works, just facilitates those connections. I was heavily inspired by a piece of Mormon folk theology that doesn’t translate well to technology. You know when you meet someone and they’re utterly familiar to you, even though there’s no way you could have met before? Mormons teach that we existed before we were born, and many believe that when you have that kind of instant recognition and connection with someone, you might have known them before mortality. This is why, in the story, Buddhists and Mormons have certain speculations about how the Lifeline machine works. The bottom line is that, for the purposes of this story, the people are what’s important, not the technology.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m featured in the upcoming Masked Mosaic anthology of superhero stories from Tyche Books, with a story about a supervillain on the Akwesasne First Nations reserve. I’ve written around 300,000 words of my novel, and pared it down to 150,000. I’m working on short stories about nanotech STIs and necromancers, so expect those themes at some point. I have only one real ambition: to treat speculative fiction as something that can heal and expand the soul, like Guy Gavriel Kay or Kage Baker. Basically, I want to write Earthsea. I’m not Le Guin and this isn’t 1968, but I’m trying to improve my skills to match that sort of ethos.