What made you decide on an epistolary structure for an SF story? What’s the fun or potential of using texts/narrative to tell a story rather than the immediacy of a story in motion?
I made the story a message from Ava to her estranged mother primarily to get into Ava’s head and capture her unique voice and anger. In this way, we learn a lot about Ava by what she chooses to reveal to her mother and also how she says it. This adds some complexity, providing another layer to the storytelling. The epistolary structure allows the reader to learn not only about the preparations for the encounter with the Needlers and Ava’s difficult relationship with her daughter, Katie, but also about Ava’s complicated feelings toward the person to whom she’s telling the story. Since by its nature the epistolary format consists of more “telling” than “showing,” it certainly helps when there’s a huge backstory to tell, as in “Those Brighter Stars.”
Until you asked this question, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve published two other epistolary stories, “The Scent of Their Arrival” (Interzone #214) and “Dear Annabehls” (Electric Velocipede #17-18, reprinted in the Other Worlds Than These anthology). In both stories, the letters/messages serve a dual purpose: They relay the specific information communicated by the writer—and also broader information about changes to the world at large. So yes, I do enjoy playing with the format.
The quotidian and the revelatory in this story create a fun dynamic, and establish a past before the “first contact” that makes this an SF story. How important is the implied past when writing about the near future?
The quotidian details tend to provide a window into larger-scale revelations in my stories. For example, the interpersonal relationships between my characters usually serve as a microcosm for the relationship between humanity and aliens; this oftentimes involves miscommunication. In “Those Brighter Stars,” the relationship between Ava and her mother and Ava’s troubled relationship with her own daughter—these ongoing patterns of hope and abandonment—help cast the story of Earth’s encounter with the Needlers in a certain light; I believe these details create a resonance the story wouldn’t otherwise have.
You chose Ava to have ADD, and to have that challenge be an asset: a common theme in lots of science fiction. How much research on ADD did you do to make sure the portrayal was accurate and well rendered?
Actually, Ava’s ADD is a side effect of a completely science fictional condition: her acute empathy for the feelings of animals, which surpasses anything I’ve ever seen in real life—and that natural ability is then amplified through the use of surgically implanted nanites. That being said, I did do research on a number of topics to help lend an air of credibility to Ava’s condition and symptoms, including: acute empathy and the neurological manifestation of empathy; hypersensitivity; ADD; and, most notably, I read about the childhood of Temple Grandin, who’s renowned for her empathetic skills with livestock. Also, doctors initially misdiagnosed Ava with pervasive developmental disorder, so I wanted to be knowledgeable of the symptoms that might lead to that incorrect diagnosis.
The American response to the Needlers’ final arrival is militant and defensive, and the isolationist’s, too. Yet it is the European Space Agency that appears to be gauging much of the Needler’s physiology correctly. Is this based more on expressions of US foreign policy or space policy?
The fact that the military mistakes the two alien shuttlecraft for missiles and responds by attempting to launch nuclear weapons isn’t meant as a statement on US foreign policy or space policy so much as a statement on human nature. Faced with a potential existential threat, human nature is to respond with fear and violence. (Tellingly, as you note, even the isolationist in that final scene reacts violently).
I made an effort to depict a gamut of reactions to impending first contact, ranging from isolationism, to religious mania, to panic and violence, to Ava’s own hopeful outlook that the Needlers were coming to lift humanity up and nurture our development. NASA, in conjunction with the ESA, takes the more measured scientific approach and attempts communication with the Needlers by trial and error. I believe these are the types of reactions we would see if we learned tomorrow a spaceship was approaching Earth.
Ava’s empathetic ability is used to confirm something she would rather not admit to the world: The Needlers found Earth and its people of no consequence. Their view of humanity was one of indifference. Why only tell her mother? Why have her lie and say they had no emotion, rather than tell the truth?
The Needlers’ reaction is deeply disturbing to Ava—maybe even worse than if they’d displayed actual hostility—particularly given her high hopes about first contact and what it means to the future of humanity. If the Needlers had come all this way to destroy us, at least we’d have meant something to them. The fact that Ava chooses to share this devastating information with only one other person, the mother who abandoned her as a child, speaks volumes about that relationship and how badly she’s been damaged. In effect, Ava may not even realize it, but she’s asking her mother a question about her own motivations for leaving. Did I ever mean anything to you? The irony is that in Ava’s single-minded devotion to the mission, she damages her own relationship with her daughter.
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