Welcome back, Ken! “Cosmic Spring” is one of several stories whose premise you’ve pulled from academic science papers. Do you go looking for story ideas in academic archives, or are stories like this one incidental to following your curiosity?
Thank you! Always such a joy to be back at Lightspeed!
I like reading science papers. Sometimes I see a piece of science reporting in my news feed and I track down the original study; sometimes I follow up a footnote in the book I’m reading; sometimes I’m just browsing through the TOCs of journals. I don’t read the papers for the purpose of getting story ideas—the papers are just plain fun on their own—though, as you note, I’ve been inspired to write stories after reading science papers on more than one occasion.
The story begins with what struck me as a bleak sort of tone, with a lonely narrator just awakened at the waning of the universe. Yet the idea of the “island ship”—a being unto itself, but also a vessel for the many beings that once lived on it—and the hypothesis that the universe is in an eternal cycle of expansion and contraction create a theme that ultimately I find hopeful. What was going on while you were writing the story—was it a nihilistic view, a hopeful one, or something else entirely?
I think a lot about cycles of time and arrows of time, two dominant models of time that have been important not just in the history of philosophy and science, but also in how we consider and come to terms with our own mortality.
It is sometimes said that taking the long view is depressing—since in the long term, all of us will be dead. But for this story, I wanted to see if it’s possible to go the other way, to imagine not just the life cycle of the individual, but the life cycle of a culture, a species, a star, a universe, and come to a view that is hopeful rather than terrifying.
Can you tell us more about how you conceived of the island ship and its consciousness?
In today’s world, science has, to a large extent, taken the place of mythology as a way of framing our understanding of the world. So I wanted to imagine how another consciousness, a post-human artificial intelligence (perhaps evolved, perhaps designed), might use theories of cosmology and a cyclical model of time as components of a mythology for understanding the universe and its own mortality.
In the story, eons after humans had scattered to the stars (and perhaps gone extinct) and the Sun had turned into a red giant, the Earth itself is being propelled around the galaxy by this AI as a kind of memorial to humanity’s past. As the universe is dying around it, the AI struggles to make sense of all these decaying references in its memory that it has never seen or experienced—the seasons, snow, islands, birds, the sea, Christmas, Spring Festival, Thanksgiving, trains, FTL networks, death—and it comes to the conclusion that the lifecycle of the universe is a kind of cosmic year, with its own spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Like insects who live only for one season or annual plants, nothing in our universe will survive to see the spring of the next cosmic year. But that doesn’t mean we (and by “we” I include the narrator) don’t yearn to pass a part of ourselves on to that next cycle—and the cosmological model leaves an intriguing opening for that possibility in the form of quantum fluctuations during the contracting phase determining large-scale structures during the expansion phase of the next cycle.
Ultimately, it’s a story about the meaning of history, about the importance of family and memory, about celebrating the beauty of our own individual existence as a single link in the chain of generations that stretches back to the first Sapiens who contemplated her own death (and beyond) and forward to our descendants who will be as alien to us as we are to dinosaurs.
“Cosmic Spring” is appearing here in Lightspeed secondary to its original market—you specifically wrote this story for a Chinese publication, where it will be appearing first. Are there things you specifically consider when writing for an international reader?
I’ve been invited to write for non-American markets a few times now, and I do enjoy the challenge. The circumstances of every invitation are different, so the things I think about are also different.
In this case, I wrote the story for the Future Affairs Administration, an innovative SF publisher based in China. Specifically, I participated in their Spring Festival SF Gala, an annual event where SF writers are invited to write stories centered around a particular theme related to Spring Festival (February 15 this year). The rules required the story to feature “Beijing West Railway Station” and that I write it within 48 hours.
Beijing West Railway Station is a major transportation hub in Beijing, and every year, during chunyun, the period of time when hundreds of millions in China travel home to celebrate Spring Festival, the station is packed (think JFK Airport during Thanksgiving season, but maybe multiply the effect by a couple orders of magnitude). It’s also architecturally distinctive, featuring a traditional Chinese style “pavilion” with multiple layers of sweeping roofs on top of a modern, concrete-and-steel building. The inclusion of this purely decorative “big hat” that gestures toward the past in an icon of modernity was quite controversial, but it has now become an indelible part of the city’s image and history.
I wanted to tell a story that takes all this into account but gives it an SF spin. And I wanted to put in some of my own feelings and memories about Spring Festival as a member of the Chinese diaspora. I was quite pleased with how it came out at the end. (The time limit was tough, and my beta readers have my eternal gratitude.)
We’re all looking forward to the third book in your Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, which I understand you’re hard at work on now. Does immersion in that world tend to bleed out into your other projects while you’re in the thick of it? And what can we expect to see from you in the meantime, to hold us over until the book comes out?
I’ve been having a lot of fun with this novel—which is big, both in terms of scope and page count. It’s definitely consumed the bulk of my creative energy for the last year or so. When I take a break to work on other projects, it’s still in the back of my mind, and I do see cross-pollination between the novel and my stories in terms of writing techniques and so on. It’s been quite a learning experience to manage such a large project.
Meanwhile, I’ll have a VR/blockchain story out in MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows anthology this spring, along with Elizabeth Bear, S.L. Huang, and other authors. I’m also working on a piece for a Gardner Dozois epic fantasy anthology that I’m very excited by. I’m not bored, that’s for sure.
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