In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Lisa Nohealani Morton to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “How Maartje and Uppinder Terraformed Mars (Marsmen Trad.).”
I had been struggling with this story for about nine months before I managed to actually write it. It was originally two stories—a straightforward SF story about fleeing the Martian rebellion (I thought it would be more interesting to explore the perspective of a functionary in the Terran government than the standard rebel perspective), and a creation myth about the terraforming of Mars. I realized fairly early on that they were the same story, but it took a long time to make the two come together.
As far as the “creation myth” side of the story goes, since I think that’s probably what makes this story unusual, it basically hit me as a concept without a story attached—just the idea that someone ought to write a creation myth about Martian terraforming. I find those sorts of ideas to be the hardest to develop, a lot of the time—you can send a character walking around and eventually they’ll run into a problem, but it’s hard to put a concept through its paces.
This story is full of tragic poetic imagery—a woman’s breath hissing out of her suit until it wraps around a planet and becomes an atmosphere, the frozen statues of Marsmen, and a man who flings his deceased wife’s belongings into the air, where her mirror orbits the planet and reflects the sun. Comical, out of context, yet I was moved by the grief Raveena and her father expressed. Was finding that balance of deep emotion and comedy alongside the worldbuilding difficult to achieve?
To be honest, the elements you talk about aren’t the ones I find funniest in the story. The Marsmen, definitely—I had a lot of fun writing them—but the others seemed like necessary mythic elements to me. There was a lot to balance in this story—the fact that it’s really two stories, obviously, and hitting the right notes between mythmaking and the real human characters. It’s part of why it took me so long to write what is, in fact, a very short story.
Science fiction fables don’t seem to be very common. Why do you think that is?
I think there are probably a couple of reasons. One is that, at least in my experience, they’re harder to write than stories that are either science fiction or fantasy, but not both. You have to make both elements of the story matter to the story, and you have to balance them carefully. It can be tricky.
Another problem is that while you might assume that the audience for those stories is anyone who likes fantasy or science fiction, the truth is you’re really only going to get some subset of the people who like both. Otherwise the science fiction fans are trying to make the fantastic elements technological, and the fantasy fans are trying to see the science-y bits as magical, and then everyone’s like “You got your unicorns in my spaceship!” and “You got your bioengineered nanosites in my dragons!” and then nobody’s happy.
You were at Taos Toolbox this summer, and Viable Paradise before that. How have writing workshops shaped your own writing?
It’s definitely helped me a lot in terms of approaching things like structure and theme more formally, so that I have an easier time both while writing a story, but especially when revising it, seeing potential pitfalls and rough places and pieces that don’t fit, and figuring out how to fix them. I think Taos in particular helped me a lot when it comes to thinking critically and, I guess, methodically—about writing in general, and my own in particular. I don’t mean to say that Viable Paradise doesn’t teach that—it’s a very big part of what they do teach—but in my own case I think I just wasn’t ready to hear it, or maybe to internalize it, when I went to VP.
One of the biggest ways that workshops have shaped my writing, though, is really one of the ways they’ve shaped me as a person. One of the ways I like to talk up VP to people who are interested in applying is that it’s a space to take yourself seriously as a writer—and possibly just as importantly, to be taken seriously as writer—and Taos was a similar experience. It’s a week (or two weeks) where you’re surrounded by other writers, which was a first for me at VP, and during which you’re expected to totally focus on writing. And no one looks askance at you when you start talking about your novel—as long as you let them have a turn talking about theirs, of course! I’ve written fiction ever since I could write, and I’ve known it was something I wanted to do professionally since I understood it was an option, but it wasn’t until after VP that I felt comfortable saying “I am a writer.” And that was a big turning point for me, both psychologically and, I think, in the quality of my writing and my level of dedication to it.
Did your experience at Taos have an effect on this particular story?
Well, all but about two hundred words of this story were written, and it was critiqued, at Taos, so I’d have to say yes, definitely! As I mentioned before, I had been struggling with this story for some time before I went to Taos Toolbox. I had written the opening scenes over and over without feeling like the two stories—the straightforward SF story and the mythic story—were coming together. After a week of lectures and critiques at Taos, though (and some time away from the story), the bones of the story seemed to come together easier, and the structural problems seemed much easier to solve. I think Raveena’s voice was always there, but Taos helped me figure the rest out.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a YA science fiction novel about an insane AI that takes over the world, which was also critiqued at Taos, although it’s still early days on that project. As of this moment, I’m taking a bit of a break to work on a short story that combines a Russian fairytale, the standard fantasy narrative about a younger son going off to find his fortune, and a magical war against a giant robot army, set in an asteroid belt. As one does.