Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: An Owomoyela

“Undermarket Data” has a noirish feel to it—what are joys and pitfalls of this genre?

You know, I never considered this to be a noir story. I’m not sure I can speak intelligently about the joys and pitfalls of the genre, as I don’t have a lot of experience in it—reading, writing, or watching.

I actually set out to write a cyberpunk story, when I sat down to write this. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I set out to write a story that would appeal to the sensibilities of a friend, who happens to enjoy cyberpunk stories, among other things. As cyberpunk is another genre in which I have read less widely than I ought to have, I’d hesitate to say that I set out to write a cyberpunk story. More like a vaguely cyberpunk-flavored story about data and privilege.

Fortunately, this is not a novel, and doesn’t need to be marketed according to subgenre. Unless someone starts linking to the story with a line like “Check out this cyberpunk story by An Owomoyela!”, I shouldn’t have to worry about readers coming in with that genre’s expectations and being completely disappointed by what they find. Hopefully.

I frequently don’t pay attention to the genre of a story when I’m writing it. (To occasionally hilarious results: I have a short story I’m working on right now, and I honestly don’t know if it’s science fiction or fantasy. On the one hand, it’s on another planet, there are aliens, and one of the major arcs of tension involves the politics of energy management. On the other hand, the main character is very clearly a lightning mage whose work involves creating lightning spells. If I ever manage to finish it, I’m going to have an interesting time deciding which markets I can send it to.)

This means that I can, apparently, write myself into genres without realizing it. That’s a little odd, but I guess it’s a neat skill to have!

The ending gives the impression that the story of Jace and Culin is still unfolding—will we see more from you in this world?

If all goes as planned! I did specifically write the ending to leave myself an in for further goofy buddy cop movie adventures between Jace and Culin, and there’s a lot about the collaborative and crowdsourced aspects of the Undermarket that I want to continue exploring. I also have a story in the works right now about an Upcity hacker who gets involved in a conspiracy surrounding falsified energy market reports.

Energy as a public utility seems to be one of the themes I’m fascinated by, at the moment. Other themes I’ve noticed cropping up in a disproportionate number of my works include generation ships and their effect on culture, and power distance/hierarchical interpersonal dynamics. I’m also hoping that someone will come along and write pykrete-punk naval fiction so that I won’t have to.

You’ve said that you know an xkcd for every topic: Which ones relate to the ideas in this story?

Hah! You know, I think there’s a lot of xkcd that has thematic resonance with this, but there’s at least one that deals explicitly with Markov chains: “Swiftkey”. (Though that Markov chain is considerably more coherent than many.) Though for autonomous bits of code running rampant on networks and complicating matters, I’d have to recommend “Network.”

Recently, I’ve been devouring the new xkcd “What If” articles as they come out, and those frequently prod you to think about data and language in a new way. For example, the Twitter “What If” answers the question of how many unique tweets exist, but also hits on information density in English and how the information content of written English words shows a direct correlation with how much a text file can be compressed by a file compression algorithm. It also contains this bit of insight:

“This example hints at a very deep idea, which is that information is fundamentally tied to the recipient’s uncertainty about the message’s content and their ability to predict it in advance.”

. . . which is more or less what a Markov chain is all about.

Somewhat relatedly, there’s a party game for parties attended primarily by writers, wherein everyone writes a paragraph of a story and passes it to the next person, who writes the next paragraph—and then folds the paper over, so that only their paragraph is visible before they pass it on to the next person. The end result is a Markov-chain-like story where any two contiguous paragraphs make sense in the context of each other, but the story as a whole is usually hilariously incoherent.

Any progress on your green dystopia story idea?

Like most of my stories, the end result seems to be deviating quite a lot from the idea seed. I’m having a great deal of fun with the worldbuilding—the current idea has a planet with high concentrations of radioactive minerals in the crust, which supports a dense jungle that can take energy from photosynthesis at the canopy and radiosynthesis at the roots. The only practical places for human habitation are places where the geologic strata have broken in such a way that the radioactive materials aren’t present where people are trying to build. Which leads to several small-land-area cities in places like beaches and valleys, largely isolated geographically from each other. I’m also thinking of ways that cities could be built out into/onto bodies of water, given that water works well for radiation shielding. I need to work out how readily available the materials of industry would be on this planet. I suppose that if you squinted and looked at it at an angle, you could call it the prequel to a green dystopia.

What I haven’t actually come up with . . . is a plot. I should probably find one of those at some point. I am reliably informed that stories with plots fare better than stories without.

Any new projects you want to tell us about?

I’ve been having a lot of fun with algorithmic creativity aids recently. For example, I whipped up a creative prompt bingo generator a while ago, and I’ve been adding on to it as more and more people get interested and want to see additional features. (Prompt bingos are popular in fanfiction circles as a kind of gamified way to generate a lot of stories/art/etc. in a communal way: Everyone gets a bingo card with different creative prompts in the squares, and they try to make a bingo by creating works which engage with the prompt. They’re tremendous fun.)

Having done that, I decided to start working on a demographics generator, which is turning into a multi-purpose random sets generator. The original idea was that you could set up a list of, say, genders, ethnicities, and personality types, and spit out a randomized cast of characters you could play with. Then I realized that I could do things like throw in a list of tropes and word counts and challenge myself to write ultra-short fiction exercises. (Given that I have difficulty writing anything under 4000 words, 100-300 word challenges are something I’ve been playing with to teach myself economy of prose.) And then I realized that I could take the randomly generated sets of tropes, word counts, and fictional universes, and generate bingo cards with them, so I built in functionality to port the generated random sets into the bingo generator.

The demographics generator is still in alpha, the underlying code is a mess and needs to be reworked, and I’m not sure anyone derives quite as much delight from it as I do. But whatever.

I keep thinking about creating a random plot generator where you could feed in parameters for what kinds of protagonists you want to have, what family of plot events and plot contrivances you want to play with, and what basic plot arc you want to fill in, and then it would generate an extremely sketchy outline of a story that you could flesh out, play with, subvert, or do whatever people do with outlines as writing prompts. I also keep thinking about developing a fiction-writing AI, but I’m fairly certain that’s beyond my skill level . . .

As for fiction projects, my writing process is chaotic enough that I could list off two dozen things I’m working on (for some value of “working on”), but I have no idea which of them will be completed at all, let alone which you should be looking out for.

One project I want to start in on is ideological: a set of works in shared worlds, released under a Creative Commons license designed to keep commercial control of individual works with their creators but allow other artistic folks to expand on those canons and publish their work commercially. It’s an attempt to tap into/support the kind of community-based writing that supported and nurtured me while I was learning the craft. Of course, like a lot of my projects, the limiting factor seems to be that I don’t write nearly as quickly as I wish I did.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She has trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.