In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Liz Coleman to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Join.”
Well, Samuel Delany was the ultimate inspiration for this whole story. Bloodchild, by Octavia Butler, was also an inspiration. I’m fascinated by unorthodox sexuality and the changes we put ourselves through for our loved ones. So I wanted to write about a guy dating aliens, which leads to the question, “Why would aliens want to date a human?”
I’m also fascinated by collective identities: Family, subculture, society, species. I wanted a species that added to its collective, but not in a “We will assimilate you,” kind of way, so the Phoeng are an inquisitive species. If they weren’t, then their generations-long journey to the center of the galaxy would be tedious. The colony ships they live on don’t offer much variety, so they really live in their heads, among the memories of their ancestors. Bringing in fresh material from outside species is a joy—not to mention that they think they’re doing those species a favor by giving them a chance to exist forever in the minds of the Phoeng.
We see the appeal Derek holds for the Phoeng (and Ngoraich), but what intrigues him so much about them?
Derek is driven by his sense of alienation. He reasons that because he feels like an alien, he’ll find belonging among aliens. The Phoeng don’t care about any of the qualities he imagines make him strange or mediocre. The Phoeng treat him as something special, because among them, he genuinely is. He’s a little self-centered, and a large part of the story is that he needs to get over himself and accept that he’s not actually as much of an outsider as he feels.
The Phoeng are very religious, their colonization only a stop along their journey to the Fountains of God. In addition to so many of their ways, do you think Derek has accepted their faith, too?
I think he has, or at least, he wants to. He’s constantly flirting with self-destruction. His love of body modification is part of his attempt to constantly reinvent himself, dancing through death and rebirth. I suspect that if actually faced with the choice to throw himself into a black hole, he’d pause, but he likes the idea of it, that everything we love can be preserved and ultimately converted into pure energy, and just possibly, a new universe.
Derek doesn’t say much about his relationship with his dad, but his mother suggests that he stayed away so long because of his father. If that was the case, would Derek would have come all the way back to Earth if it weren’t for Ngoraich?
I think he would. By returning, he’s hoping to resolve his guilt over leaving his family behind. I suspect that any problems he had with his dad were a convenient excuse for him, while the real reason he left was more complicated. It was just easier to blame his dad, rather than accept the fact that he has trouble relating to his fellow humans.
What do you think ultimately wins Derek’s mother over? That Ngoraich needs her?
I don’t think it was ever going to take much to win over Derek’s mother. Derek just thought otherwise. If he had been up front about Ngoraich, his mother would have expressed mild shock, concern for his health, and then gotten on with life. She accepts Derek no matter what, it’s only Derek who has trouble accepting himself. She’d love Ngoraich because Derek does, and because she’s an open-minded, inquisitive person herself who’d realize it was pretty cool being the only lady on Earth with a telepathic bug for a grandchild.
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