Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Kameron Hurley

You talked about the genesis of “Enyo-Enyo” on jforjetpack.com. Was there anything in that early vision that didn’t survive the reframing around Eris?

To be dead honest, before Eris entered the picture, the story had no plot. It was just these two people floating around in space with some unnamed prisoner. It was an excuse for me to write a lot of what I thought were clever descriptions about space detritus and planets the color of foam. In the original, I had more male characters, which I gender-swapped after I figured out the frame. My timeline already jumped around a lot—I just had no idea why. Maybe because transitions tend to be so boring . . .

It was initially a story about loneliness, I think. Some of that bled through to the final, but loneliness wasn’t the main thrust of the story after the rewrite. It was altogether something more creepy and perhaps intangible. Something about loss, and how we double down on our bad choices.

Some writers are gardeners, just throwing interesting seeds of things together and seeing what comes out, and some are careful, exacting architects who know precisely where they’re going and what they want to accomplish. I’m definitely the gardener variety. Writing is as much a process of exploration for me as it is for the reader.

How did you approach the worldbuilding, the language, used to describe the satellite, the characters, and the worlds in your story?

I’m big on worldbuilding, which most anybody who’s read my novels or other short fiction already knows. I like to go to places that are really different, and then see what happens to people when they grow up there. Do we recognize them as human? Which parts of them? What parts become alien? That’s what really interests me in science fiction—not the bells and whistles of the technology and all the intricate schematics, but how it transforms people and what we think it means to be human.

I’m a fan of organic tech in science fiction, because I think it has the ability to far outlast big tin cans in the sky. If a spaceship sheds its skin like a snake, or spawns other ships like fishes, how does that change the way we interact with it? Or how we think of it (and, by extension, ourselves)? I want to see different sorts of technology, so every time I found myself pulling up a familiar trope as I wrote this—whether it was what a space transport looked like (shuttle cruisers for everyone!) or a spacesuit or drinking liquor—I excised it, and spent some time trying to come up with something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted it to feel alien, different. And it should feel alien. Even if your societies are building and crumbling every few centuries, no two are going to look exactly alike, especially when environments change.

I get tired of reading the same old stories where people look the same, talk the same, have the same moral values, and the same tired conversations ten thousand years from now. I want to go somewhere different. I want to meet different people. So that’s what I put in my fiction.

But it’s not for everyone. A lot of people take comfort in homogeny, which is great, because there’s plenty of work out there for them. But for those who want to go someplace weird sometimes, well, the weirder it is, the harder it is to find.

The story leaves a lot unanswered, leaves the reader to fill in their own answers: How did you hone the balance between engaging and dis-engaging ambiguity, balance the slow, incomplete reveal?

I had the great pleasure of writing this story knowing that it was for Jared Shurin and Anne C. Perry’s anthology, The Lowest Heaven, and they tend to prefer their fiction a little on the weird and dark and fantastic side. I suspected they would let me get away with more ambiguity than a more traditional SF venue would. When I sent it off to Jared, I trusted he would tell me if it was totally incomprehensible. He told me it was all right, so hurrah. I wasn’t sure there would be another venue for it, though. Like a lot of writers, I had a large collection of form and mostly-form rejections from John Joseph Adams from back in his days as assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Not only was I sending him yet another Kameron story, but it was a very weird, ambiguous one, and I honestly expected he’d ask for rewrites, at best. I was shocked that he accepted it—weirdness, lack of exposition, and all. Sometimes life surprises you.

I’ve never been a fan of exposition. I like to learn by doing. You don’t need to tell me how a light bulb works. Just show me how to turn it on. I tend to lead readers through my worlds like this too. I’m not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I’m just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride.

Some readers really hate this. It can be confusing and incredibly challenging, especially when you first start. But I like to think that for those few who stick with it, it’s also incredibly satisfying when all the pieces come together. We get spoon-fed a lot of information in movies and TV, complete with flashbacks to stuff that happened just twenty minutes before, and long “as you know” dialogue that recaps all the events we’ve been watching for the last ninety minutes.

This is fine sometimes, when I need some brain candy, but on the whole I don’t like stories that insult me. I like to figure things out. I’ve heard people say that when writers don’t tell you everything, it’s mean, or some kind of elitist “trick,” or an author being arrogant. But to me, it’s about having total trust in my readers. I invite readers to immerse themselves in a place and with people who are very, very different from them in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. It’s not preachy, and it doesn’t invite easy answers. That’s not arrogant. That’s saying, “I trust that my readers are smart enough to come to their own conclusions.” For my part in all this, I need to be smart enough to give them enough information to do that. And if I’m not doing that, well, my editor needs to tell me so!

I was particularly worried about this story because it had absolutely no “this is what it all means” or “this is what happened” dialogue anywhere in the story. And then it just kind of has this Maureen McHugh-like “and that’s the end!” type of ending. Even in my novels, the protagonist generally has an “aha” moment where she lays out exactly how the puzzle of the plot fits together—so both the readers and the antagonists realize that she’s got it. But “Enyo-Enyo” was a much quieter, more hunt-and-pick sort of story that invites a second read (or maybe three).

To me, the reading experience isn’t just an author telling people things. It’s a conversation with a reader. That’s why two different readers can have such vastly different opinions on the meaning or events of a story. One of the things I also gun for is creating a story that people actually think about after they finish it. If everything’s explained in nice neat bullets with a fine little executive summary at the top, there’s really nothing to think about.

This need for completeness, for put-down-ability, is actually a very U.S. thing, and I suspect it has to do with the way we were trained to write fiction for magazines back in the day. It’s content that’s meant to be discarded. When you’d read a story in a magazine at the doctor’s office, they wouldn’t want you to take the magazine with you. They’d want you to read it for entertainment, say, “Well, that was nice,” and put it down again. If you kept the magazine, then the next person wouldn’t use it.

Writing stories today is a little different. What you want to do is encourage people to share your stories—and to do that they should be thinking about them. If I read a story online and I’m like, “Well, that was nice,” I’m probably not going to share it with my friends. I’m not going to talk about it. The stuff I share is the stuff I want to talk about with my friends. What did you think of this? What really happened? How did you interpret this? What do you think of this character? If you’re not creating stories that anyone gets excited about, then it’s just disposable content, something somebody picks up, enjoys, but then puts back down again.

In your drop-dead, spectacular essay, “We Have Always Fought,” you talk about being the “biggest self-aware misogynist” you know. I empathized with the ongoing struggle to identify and reject all the prejudices we ingest from the society we live in. How do you work to not let that inform your writing?

I was telling somebody the other day that if all I’m ever known for is writing that blog post, I can die happy. It’s already the work of mine that’s been read by the most people, and it’s circulated among a lot of writing and gaming communities—folks who can really make a difference.

The answer is, your internal biases always inform your writing. All you can do is be aware of them and fight to counteract them. We’ve internalized the narratives we’ve been fed from the time that we’re children. What I think a lot of people needed to hear in that post was that to some extent, internalizing those biased narratives isn’t your fault. But once you become aware of those biases, it’s up to you to stop perpetuating them. It can be something as simple as no longer laughing politely at a friend’s incredibly unfunny racist joke. Or correcting someone who says women can’t be programmers (not only are there plenty of women programmers, but programming was initially considered an occupation only fit for women, back in the ’50s. Oh how the narrative changes!).

But you can’t fight your internal biases and messed up narratives unless you’re aware of them. If there was only one story where the single female character was a damsel in distress, or the single gay character died tragically, or the single black character existed merely to magically assist the white dude hero—then it would be annoying, but not part of perpetuating a broader toxic narrative. Anyone who reads a lot of stories or watches a lot of media can tag these narratives pretty quickly. But there are subtler ones that sometimes have to be pointed out to you. The simplest way to become aware of them is to listen to readers react to your stories and others. Not argue with them. Or attack them. Or publicly disagree with them. Or shove yourself into their discussion. But to actively go out and find readers picking apart stories—yours or someone else’s—online and addressing problems with internal biases and the perpetuation of problematic narratives.

It’s funny how many writers flip out when somebody says, “Hey, isn’t it weird your Chicago doesn’t have any black people in it who aren’t homeless?” And hey, don’t you think it’s icky that you called your mixed-race protagonist a mongrel? And wow, do you realize you killed your gay male character—just like all these other novels do?

Just listen to people and their actual lived experience—not the experiences mass media feeds you. Because as somebody in advertising, I can tell you right now that marketers have good reason to feed you particular narratives about the way the world is and the way it should be. It’s not their job to tell you what the world actually is. It’s their job to sell you things.

Those of us who are actually in the writing, gaming, movie, television, and marketing industries have an opportunity to rewrite those narratives. Or perpetuate them. I take this responsibility pretty seriously. I remember how important books and stories were to me growing up. I remember how discomfited I felt by the is-that-a-rape scene in Blade Runner when I was twelve, and I remember throwing Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams across the room a few years later because of its milquetoast do-nothing heroine.

By day I work in marketing and advertising, so I know why we perpetuate these narratives. They keep the people in power in power and ensure that those we don’t want to be in power are constantly anxious and lacking in self-esteem. People who are anxious and lack confidence buy a lot more than happy, confident people. I recently finished a great book, Can’t Buy Me Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, that lays out how traditional marketing tactics and narratives define and often breakdown our relationships and sense of self.

You might ask, hey, if marketing is so bad, why are you in it? To which I’d respond, well, it pays a hell of a lot better than fiction. But seriously, if the narratives we write in fiction are so bad, why write fiction? Because we can fix them.

Marketing taught us to smoke. But it also dismantled that same industry even more quickly. Marketing is why we wear seat belts and bike helmets and why drunk driving in the U.S. is much, much lower than it used to be. We can rewrite narratives. We can change behavior. The same tools that create toxic narratives can be used to create positive, powerful ones, too. It’s all what you choose to do with it.

Great power, great responsibility, all that.

I loved this line: “Something inside of Enyo stirred, something dark and willfully forgotten, like a bad sexual encounter.” I actually stopped reading to spend a moment admiring the vividness of it. Are there any writers that throw you out of a story like that? Where you have to pause to live in the moment of a line just a little longer?

I’m a sucker for vivid writing. I read a lot of Jeff VanderMeer books for the vividness of the writing, for the jaw-dropping imagery, and for those starkly human lines that just cut you to pieces. Angela Carter and Elizabeth Hand, Gene Wolfe and Geoff Ryman do this, too. A newer writer whose debut recently wowed me was Zachary Jernigan, who has some incredibly creepy worldbuilding and really lovely imagery in his book No Return.

Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Martha Wells, KJ Bishop—and even Joanna Russ in a gut-punch way—can all really turn a phrase, something that cuts at your heart, and reminds you of what it is to be human.

What’s up next for you?

I’m working on the first book in a fantasy epic, a Game-of-Thrones-meets-Fringe type of saga with flesh-eating plants and satellite-reliant magic. It’s called Forging the Mirror Darkly and my agent has been very patient with my perpetual rewriting of the damn thing, which I’ve been about two weeks away from finishing for the last, oh, three months. It’s about twice as long as my last book, which is some of why it seems to be taking so long, I suspect.

It’s also a lot heavier on exposition than I’m used to, which is my nod to greater marketability and to the epic form, which tends to lend itself to more telling than showing. Still, that’s a big change for me, and it’s been painful. I am assured this will help move more books, but . . . so, so painful. I look forward to writing the SF noir romp of expositionless madness that’s up next once this is out of my hands.

Hopefully we’ll find a home for it this year or early next year. Fingers crossed.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.