What was the spark for this story?
In recent years there’s been a lot of good conversation about representation in adventure fantasy. One of my favorite critiques has been a response to people who claim erroneously that the presence of nonwhites and combatant women in medieval Europe isn’t “plausible.” As Dennis R. Upkins says: “Talking animals, elves, dragons, gnomes, all totally plausible. Black people in Europe? Too many people can’t suspend disbelief at that.” There is always a part of me that wants to take the most serious issues and twist them absurdly, and so, sometime later, I found myself saying, “Well, obviously it’s the dragons’ fault.” And since dragons aren’t anywhere in the same astral plane as “plausible” (unless you’re talking about some sort of biological memory of dinosaurs (“We are all simply afraid of snakes”)), I thought it would be fun if a realistic Moor and a realistic woman knight were faced with an absurd dragon.That was the first idea, anyway; the story didn’t come until I had met Malik and Fara and seen them interact.
Are the dragons metaphors? Their effect on memory and the way it was discussed in the story felt like they were being set up as metaphors for another phenomenon.
Ah well, you know, everything’s a metaphor and nothing’s a metaphor.
Apart from the snarky one-liner that I mentioned above, the dragon wasn’t supposed to represent anything apart from its own silliness. Now the Parable of the Stone, which an the older version of the familiar “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object,” and is often quoted by people who never got past freshman philosophy and think they have an airtight refutation of divinity, has been knocking around my head for decades. It was a pleasure finally to put it in fiction. But also, it made my one-liner (“It’s the dragons’ fault”) more interesting—What if we believe in dragons and a whitewashed Europe because something about those beliefs require each other? (I will admit that, in an early draft, Malik suggested that the dragons were generated by the minds of men, and would always exist so long as men felt the way they did; but that tied me into too many causality loops and drained away a lot of the dramatic tension.)
But as I read the story now, I’m struck by the specific way in which the dragon affected Malik and Fara. Neither of them forgot his or her own reality, although that’s a reasonable consequence of the memory-altering power these things seem to have. Rather, she forgot him (and anyone like him) and he forgot her (or anyone like her). At this distance, I wonder if the dragon isn’t a stand-in for the way one’s own individual privilege enables him to see the privilege of others with great clarity, but never his own.
What have been the benefits/challenges of being part of the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop?
CSFW is run like the Milford-style writers workshops (Clarion, Odyssey): The author listens silently as each member gives a critique of the story that centers around what works and what doesn’t. We meet once a month, usually for dinner at someone’s house, and it’s all quite friendly.
The benefit from such a process is incalculable. I know some people have been badmouthing the workshop process of late, but they’re wrong. If all eight of your colleagues see the same problem, a problem you yourself didn’t see, it can alter your whole outlook on the story. I can think of at least two stories of mine (“Keeping Tabs” and “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer”) which would have been entirely different if not for the wise observations of my classmates or workshop colleagues. On the other hand, when the group can’t agree about the story (I’ve had stories where they split half-and-half with diametrically opposed views), you have to shrug and go back to your own instincts.
The challenge, for me, is that nearly everyone in the group is more experienced than I am. They have long publishing histories in prominent markets, multiple novels, etc. So I always feel I have to work twice as hard to hold my own. Also, although I don’t know how much this matters, we’re mostly on the older side and have had some difficulty getting younger members, and I wonder whether this hampers the freshness of our perspective and the possibility of iconoclastic energy. (Although, what do I know? Maybe younger groups are no different.)
Your faculty page lists a wonderful range of expertise: constitutional law and contracts; cyber law; employment discrimination; fantasy writing; science fiction. Do you teach both law and literature at the same time?
I do! I was originally hired as a legal studies teacher, and most of my classroom work over the years has been about some sort of law. But when the legal studies faculty merged into the Humanities Department, my new department chair looked at my publication list and pointed out that no one had taught the science fiction lit course for five years, and would I consider . . . ? I didn’t even let her finish the sentence. “Are you kidding? Of course!” I’ve been teaching it since 2011; it runs once a year, usually in the spring, and it is my favorite time as an instructor: to sit and talk about stories for two hours! I also get the fun of using brand-new stories by my friends (Ken Liu, Helena Bell, Cat Valente, Matt Kressel) and sometimes I can get them to come to campus and speak to the kids. Jim Kelly did that the first time I taught the class, when we read “Think Like a Dinosaur.”
There’ve been some noises about having me teach the short fiction lit course, and maybe even a new course in short-story writing, but that’s far in the future, if it ever happens.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
I’ve begun the worldbuilding for what I hope will be my first novel. The working title is Reformation, and it grows out of my complaint that SFF writers are never especially imaginative in the legal systems they create for their universes. In this secondary world, the abilities of some members of the population make a legal system superfluous in one society, whereas they alter its nature in a different culture in the same world. I also have a bunch of short stories in various stages of readiness.
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