All stories have a home planet, so where did this one come from? Since it deals with how humans bond with non-humans (be they machines or animals or something in between), was there a particular Human/Other relationship that initially sparked your interest?
When I wrote this, my partner had an adorable little grass-green Smartcar. It was the first car he’d ever personally owned, and it was precisely his style—tiny, efficient, with headlights and grill that made it look happy. It drove like a toy and struggled to maintain freeway speeds, which was fine because my partner is inflexibly obedient toward speed limits. He adored that little car and decorated it with cute bumper stickers and stuffed animals.
At the same time, we have cats. Many cats. A truly unreasonable quantity of cats, in fact, for one household. As is often the case with cats, they do not regard themselves as pets; at best they are roommates. They are untrainable, hostile toward change, and complain about our habits as much as we complain about theirs—usually by yowling in the middle of the night.
It occurred to me that the emotional bond my partner had with his car seemed as strong as his bond with any of our cats. The car’s worth lay in the fact that it was a perfect fit for his transportation needs, and at the same time, reflected his personality: cheerful, approachable, efficient, fun, and always moving slowly enough to enjoy the scenery.
Cats, on the other hand, are purely their own.
Of course, the cats are alive, and if push came to shove, he would absolutely have chosen any of the cats over his car.
But a few months ago, my partner was rear-ended and his little car was totaled. He commented on the absurdity of experiencing grief over an inanimate object—it’s just a car, after all. Our insurer covered it, and we have a second vehicle. So what if his little car is now a pile of parts? But he isn’t planning to replace it, and he doesn’t smile anymore when he drives.
This story’s universe is brimming with life. From the commerce-worshipping Henza, to the ships that make up the mining fleets in far away systems, to Jeri’s sea-centric upbringing with traces back to Old Earth, everything feels incredibly well established. Does this story take place within a galaxy that you’ve written about before, or perhaps that you have plans to further explore? What part of developing this setting did you enjoy the most?
I haven’t written about this galaxy before, but it’s certainly something I’d like to explore. I found myself wondering why Jeri left Icara, for example. Was it personal? Did she not have the means to continue her family’s trade? And if not, why not? Did she lack status, or capital, or something else entirely? Or was there some sort of social or political upheaval—an invasion, a rebellion, a coup? There are plenty of stories on Icara, I think, and personally, I’m drawn to the ocean as both a setting and a thematic device.
While writing this particular story, however, I was most intrigued by the Henza. In recent years, there’s been a growing alliance between religious and capitalist entities, and there’s a lot of potential conflict there. If faith becomes a for-profit business, to whom is it loyal? Supreme beings, or a bottom line? In this story, the Henza have simply unified the two concepts; profit herself is a goddess. But that’s an extreme position. At some point, somewhere in this galaxy, someone of a deeper, more focused faith will directly challenge the Henza.
A particularly striking aspect of the narrative voice is how Jeri’s Icaran heritage and upbringing among fishers still influences how she perceives the world. We see this in the vivid swirling colors on Cleo’s walls as the ship tries to soothe Jeri and the tight third-person narration’s use of fish- and sea life-based metaphors. How did you settle on using this particular cluster of imagery? Did you draw on personal experience, research, or just plain old imagination?
Before I knew Jeri’s background, I knew she wasn’t someone who felt at home in space. She found it dark, and deeply lonely. She was the sort of person who, if she wasn’t part of a crew, would come to personally need Cleo, even more than other pilots might.
On the other hand, I knew she was someone who chose a life in space, so it couldn’t be completely intolerable for her. She was someone who could handle hard work, long voyages, and a confined living space surrounded by endless, unsurvivable emptiness.
It became clear pretty quickly that she was from an ocean planet, that she’d been born into a culture that survived by drawing resources, meaning, and comfort from the sea. But she’d also left behind a close-knit matriarchal social structure. Cleo helped fill that void.
I grew up in a small fishing town near the ocean, so much of the imagery—the whirling schools of tiny fish, the color of spilled fish blood—I drew from that. I also love the tropics, so the weather and the moon at night came from a beach somewhere in Costa Rica. And, in the interests of full disclosure, Moana is my favorite Disney princess. But I like to think imagination played a pretty big role, too.
One of the key themes here seems to be the use and misuse of empathy. Both the Henza’s krosuta and Cleo’s reactive programming utilize increased emotional recognition, although the Henza use it to craft self-serving deals while the Juno ships comfort their crews. Possibly as a result, captains cry when selling a Juno, but Henza customers often run and usually end up scarred. Is there something for readers to pull out in how the same skill used towards different ends leads to these divergent outcomes? Does the Henza worldview of percentages, advantages, and disadvantages—an approach that initially seduces Jeri but which she ultimately rejects—neglect to account for the human heart? Or do they use that knowledge to cruelly profit?
The Henza worldview definitely accounts for the human heart, but as another avenue for exploitation and profit.
You could say that Juno Corporation, in designing the Mooncarver class, was also exploiting a human tendency toward sentimentality. After all, Cleo’s programming goes well beyond a comfortable ambient temperature and effective locks. It’s clear the ship is engineered to promote a very human emotional bond with the captain and crew. A crewmember who flies on a Mooncarver, when she earns enough to purchase her own ship, will look fondly on the bonds she had, and likely purchase her Mooncarver in turn.
The difference, however, is that Juno doesn’t harm its customers; the relationship is mutually beneficial. Juno profits from the Mooncarver’s emotive-adaptive programming, sure, but captains and crew get a much more user-friendly experience—a ship that doesn’t just respond to commands, but adapts to their physical and emotional needs, and becomes a friend. This, I think, is why Cleo seems so canine: a Juno ship is very much like the once-wolves that evolved into dogs. They fit neatly into the human social and emotional framework, and ideally, both parties benefit.
The Henza, on the other hand, treat sentimentality as a weakness that opens the door to either slaughter or enslavement, whichever is more profitable. Like the Juno Corporation, the Henza use empathy as a tool to profit—but the difference lies in the regard they extend to human emotion, once they’ve detected it.
That isn’t to say that the Juno Corporation is ethically unimpeachable, of course; it’s looking after its own profit, after all. For all the empathy in this galaxy, it is still inherently profit-driven; there’s little altruism. It’s easy to become detached and cynical, like the krosuta dealer.
In a way, Jeri’s escape is an affirmation of the intrinsic value of empathy and of deep emotional connections, even at the expense of profits, and even if it means risking one’s life.
Throughout the story, Jeri’s conscious and subconscious desires are reflected back at her by the surrounding world. While there are hints that the Henza may have been playing Jeri all along, it was Jeri’s desire to trade for an inchoate “advantage” that the Henza initially capitalized on. In the end, Cleo’s “suggestion” that they run to the Luric system could be read as the adaptive programming merely picking up on and repeating Jeri’s subconscious desire to flee. Condemned to a life on the run, does Jeri pay a penalty for not knowing herself deeply enough at the outset? Or might her newfound clarity of priorities and rejection of materialism have been worth the price?
One of the things I find fascinating about free-market capitalism is that it depends on two concepts, rational self-interest and perfect information, neither of which exist among actual humans.
If a single human—or group of humans—in a free-market economy managed to cultivate reliable access to accurate information and an ability to act solely in an ethically detached, self-interested fashion, they’d have a tremendous advantage over other humans, and would end up obscenely wealthy.
They’d also be downright evil.
And that’s precisely what the Henza have accomplished. Their power, including their control of ports and trade and their dominance over local civilizations, gives them access to more information than anyone else. The krosuta powder enhances that access to information—they can effectively read an individual’s emotional state and thereby determine their motives. Moreover, the krosuta blunts their own emotional responses, leaving them better equipped to act with total detached self-interest.
Someone like Jeri is a prime mark for the Henza. She thinks she’s a rational actor with solid information: She knows her profit margins and she knows what she can gain, financially, by letting Cleo go. She also trusts the contract she’s signed is the full extent of her deal with the Henza—that they are negotiating in good faith and have given her complete access to all relevant information. She assumes that because the contract is binding, it can be taken at face value.
But Jeri is neither rational nor informed. She’s human, and she doesn’t partake of krosuta; she forms deep emotional and social bonds, and those color her choices. She also takes only contract work, through larger corporations, guaranteeing that what information she does possess—about the Henza, about local social structures, about anything not related directly to trade routes—is limited.
In the end, Jeri’s decision to flee reflects her essential humanity. She realizes she is trapped, that she has been manipulated. She understands, to some extent, the insurmountable advantage the Henza have over her and others. She can’t accurately calculate her chances of success ahead of time, and any purely rational response to the circumstances leaves her enslaved. She can’t fight the Henza and win.
And so her response is visceral and deeply human: She runs.
But she only does so at Cleo’s behest. Cleo, though inanimate and far from human, prompts Jeri to act in the most human way possible.
Does Jeri pay a penalty for not knowing herself?
Definitely. Will it be worth it, in the end? That might depend on whether she breaks through the blockade, how far she gets, where she ends up—and, being human, she has no way to know all that in advance. But she does have her best friend at her side, and that’s a pretty big reward in itself.
What’s coming up next on your horizon? Beyond any concrete projects or plans, are there any new and uncharted areas that you’re eager to explore?
I’ve been traveling a lot lately. When you travel, you pick up threads of experience you would otherwise never have encountered; you dig through layers of reality beyond the obvious, and sometimes those layers sparkle with the unexpected. For example: The best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted were served, of all places, in mid-December in Iceland—where they have volcanic soil, abundant freshwater and geothermic electricity, and neat rows of greenhouses glowing warm in the winter dark. It defied every assumption I’d ever made about Iceland, or about tomatoes. But it also made perfect sense.
I’m working on several short stories and a novel at the moment, and as I’m drafting, I’m looking for those surprises—the rich fruits on an icy planet—and asking how they got there, what happened to make it possible, who benefits and who suffers. How, but also why. There’s almost always a good story in those details.
And personally, I find it’s a lot more fun to ask these questions in other galaxies, or other times, or other dimensions. Our reality’s become rather tiresome and predictable lately. And on some level, science fiction has always been a stand-in for travel, a ticket to someplace too distant for a simple plane flight.
Spread the word!