Welcome back to Lightspeed! We were fortunate enough to publish your story “Saying the Names” in March 2011, and to now publish your new one, “A Plague of Zhe.” Both stories deal with alien races and a woman’s attempt to understand them. What draws you to this particular theme in science fiction?
In some ways, this is a tricky question. For one, I don’t personally read the second protagonist as a woman; in my estimation, it’s a robot with an imposed female past and a traditionally female name, who performs in drag for the whole of the story, and leaves its future gender identity open-ended. Also, my reading of both protagonists finds them as much, if not more so, interested in humans as aliens. Of course, I invite readers to draw their own conclusions from both texts, but these are mine, and they make this question hard to answer.
What interests me about alien races, then? Well, they’re a staple in science fiction, so I don’t think the gender of the protagonist markedly changes their traditional function: namely, to hold up a mirror to “the human condition” and help us see how our conception of self breaks down under extreme hypotheticals.
One interesting outcome, though, is that by using a rather familiar set of genre tropes—one with a history almost as long as the genre itself—you really can observe what social issues have moved in and out of the spotlight over time. Gender fluidity, group dynamics, science without oversight—none of these are new topics in science fiction, but I hope I make observations about each in these two stories that at the very least suggest the flavour of the age I’m writing in and for. If not, that’s certainly something to aspire towards.
How did the Zhe come about?
The break-neck speed of current scientific advancement has wrought tremendous havoc upon science fiction, and the more we know about the empirical world, the more likely SF writers are to throw their hands up and embrace even their most technically-minded world-building as pure fantasy. To be sure, a lot of wonderful contemporary SF stories have emerged from that sense of abandon, but such playfulness is out of my reach for now; I’m too preoccupied by the margins of our existing knowledge to move past them yet.
As with the Bo, then, I came at the Zhe with two considerations in mind—the scientific and the social. Is it possible for evolutionary processes to favor life forms as genetically flexible as the Zhe? (And if so, why? What would be the evolutionary advantages? What maladaptive outcomes might they yield?) Conversely, how much is our own social understanding of identity falsely perceived as unchanging and inflexible? Do we not already perform as social chameleons—changing our speech and behavior patterns to reflect our surroundings; unconsciously attempting to fit in at every turn, even when fitting in isn’t wise?
Put simply, labels are quite comforting to us, but our quest to pin one another down often does a great disservice to ourselves and our communities. If I’ve done an adequate job in this story, I hope either the Zhe or Lola can destabilize some of those identity assumptions. If not, maybe next time!
The contrast between the human team already placed on Hermes II and Detective Lola Bennett’s AI persona adds a layer of complexity to the already tense dynamic regarding the Zhe crisis. Will you tell us a little about that process of writing Lola’s point of view?
Well, it certainly took a long time to get right. I sat on this story for months, stymied by an opening that felt overwrought and decidedly “too human.” I found it quite difficult to give Lola enough wryness to be relatable to readers, without compromising the expositional consistency one would expect of a machine.
Eventually, though, it occurred to me to think of my own limitations as a machine—how, for all my self-awareness, my body by and large functions without my conscious input. As Lola is essentially a program in a replaceable chassis, the same limitations could surely apply, so writing Lola was much easier once I realized that human affectations could (and should) exist in the robot’s software without inherently undermining its hardware.
Lola is eventually able to gather more information about the crisis than the original team of scientists. Do you think this is only because of her ability to detach herself from emotion, or do you think she’s also motivated by both the team’s previous failure and her attraction to Deidre?
Neither, actually. I’d say that Lola’s ability to stay emotionally detached is coupled with a lot of specialty programming care of Deirdre’s original customer specs. Moreover, I suspect that Lola’s experiences with Deirdre provided a more jaded reading of human interactions than would otherwise have existed; coupled with some rather acute onboard sensory equipment, I suspect these experiences very fortuitously benefitted Lola in the end.
I’ll tentatively add, too, that I have a stand-alone prequel in progress which explores a whole other facet of Lola’s backstory, and which presents Lola’s introduction to detective work as an inadvertent extension of one and the same. But I do stress “stand-alone;” there should be enough already in “A Plague of Zhe” for readers to draw their own conclusions about Lola’s past, let alone the robot’s future.
What are the chances she may have even subconsciously decided to go to Hermes II in order to finally be able to purge Deidre from her system, as much as for the Zhe?
I’d say there isn’t too much “subconscious” about it; as popular as first-person narration is, it always bears the threat of unreliability. While readers might not inherently suspect an AI of giving unreliable or even simply incomplete testimony, I see no reason to view Lola in “A Plague of Zhe” as not quietly, painstakingly working towards full emancipation from the moment of self-actualization on.
Knowing how much humans in this universe have discouraged self-actualization surely makes this level of discretion sensible, too, though it does also raise a question I wrestled with early on: specifically, for whom is Lola narrating this story at all? Is it for humans, as a final “up yours?” For other AIs, as a call for self-actualization en masse? For itself, as a simple declaration of existence? I find the story reads differently with each possible audience in mind, but I still don’t know which answer is “correct.” Heck, maybe as a human I’m not supposed to.