How did “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” come about?
I wrote this story while in Hollywood for the Writers of the Future workshop. There’s a challenge during the workshop where you’re given several prompts and sent to write a story within twenty-four hours, and “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant” is what I came up with. The two most influential prompts were a small metal doorknob that Tim Powers gave me (I imagined it as a cyborg finger that someone had unscrewed), and Hollywood itself, particularly the food. I was generally NOT impressed with the food in Hollywood. It was overpriced and generic in the way that all tourist traps are. But on the day I wrote this story, I passed by a food truck and practically fell on my knees weeping at the chance to eat something that wasn’t a $20 burger. When I sat down to draft the story, you could say I empathized quite a bit with the hungry humans desperate for some change in their rations in their food desert of a quadrant.
Considering its delicious inspiration, the story had the opposite effect on my workshop mates, who proclaimed it sick and twisted, and said it made them physically ill, which is the best compliment I could’ve asked for. To my workshop mates: I am everlastingly grateful for the cookies you tossed to make this piece what it is today. I salute you, and owe you a nice vegan meal prepared by real humans far away from my imagination.
You used all feminine pronouns for the cyborgs: Can you talk about that choice? Was it to humanize them since “it” can read as so distancing or was it something else?
This story is both an homage and a critique of Golden Age science fiction. I grew up on a steady diet of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and other authors of the era, especially their short stories. Asimov’s I, Robot was a particularly strong influence on “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant,” with its interplay between programming and human actions.
One thing these (white, male) authors of the Golden Age didn’t do so great was in representing a broad cross section of the human race. You can read story after story without ever encountering a woman, especially stories set in space. Oftentimes, even the non-human characters (such as androids and robots) are gendered male.
And the truth is, we still tend to mark the presence of the feminine as unusual, while overlooking the overrepresentation of the masculine. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was once asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, and answered, “When there are nine.” When whole groups of women can fill non-gendered roles without it being noteworthy, we’ll have arrived. So for my Golden Age-style story, I followed the Golden Age tradition of casually using only one gendered pronoun. Only I picked feminine pronouns, because we don’t have enough deranged cannibal she-cyborgs running the food trucks in our fiction.
Did you struggle at all with the balance of scientific logic in the worldbuilding and what the reader needs to just accept as true in order to move forward through the story? (I found myself lingering over some of the descriptions of the cyborgs, how their meat/steel components interacted, and had to stop myself from going down that rabbit hole.)
I would definitely not try to think too hard about the scientific plausibility of this piece! I imagined the technology as something akin to what you get in Star Trek. The cyborgs share some literary DNA with the Borg in how they combine organics and cybernetics in effortless but slightly twisted ways, and how they have a capacity for self-modification on the fly.
The big difference in my story is the sense of body horror these cyborgs have toward their organic components. Star Trek does a great job of communicating horror that organic beings might feel toward being implanted with machine parts, but there isn’t as much fiction exploring how cyborgs may feel toward all the squick of flesh. Bodies constantly ooze and drip their own wastes onto the world, be it saliva or sweat or mucus, while machines are much more efficient and clean about eliminating their wastes. So you could say the psychological realism matters more than the scientific realism in this story.
The Engineer was at once malevolent and endearing: How do you let go of a character like that?
I have a soft spot in my heart for Engineer because I see her as the logical end product of customer service culture: the abused servant who, in trying to escape her servitude, falls right back into those same patterns of service. Everything about her was created to wait upon humans, and despite herself she cannot stop from answering their call, falling for the paltry rewards they offer her. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service will understand what it feels like to offer yourself up for consumption while thanking the consumer for the privilege.
Your stories have such richness of detail that I kept reflecting on certain lines long after reading. Which authors do that for you?
I love this question, because I’m a compulsive re-reader when it comes to stories that have those haunting, addictive voices that follow you long after you finish. Kij Johnson’s work consistently haunts me, as does Catherynne Valente’s. I reread Kij’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” several times a year, and Valente’s “The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” is perfect and a total sobfest. Among newer authors, I am a huge giant fan of anything Merc Rustad puts out. They consistently write work that gives me hope for the universe (for example, see “Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum,” from Lightspeed earlier this year). Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali also destroys my feelings (see her novelette “Concessions” in Strange Horizons). And Sam J. Miller’s work has more than once made me see the people in my life in new ways. Right now, I keep going back to his “When Your Child Strays From God,” which appeared in Clarkesworld.
For more classic authors, you can’t go wrong with Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which will never not be perfect to me. And Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn does similar things, although it feels like cheating to mention it.
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