Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Sean Williams

Can you talk about how this story came about and how it ties into your Twinmaker series?

Twinmaker is set in a world where matter transmitters are taken for granted by most people, at least by the youngest members of society, who have entirely grown up with them. This technology, d-mat, doesn’t use a wormhole or anything like that: It analyses a thing, destroying it in the process, and then creates an identical copy somewhere else. As with all technological innovations, there are unintended consequences for individuals and society. Even a three-book series isn’t sufficient to explore all of these consequences, so I’ve been looking for other means of exploring them. The Forrest and Sargent stories are one. My starting premise is always “what’s something interesting about matter transmission that (to my knowledge) hasn’t been tried out before and how can I play it out in the form of a criminal investigation?” The latter part because I grew up reading Asimov’s mysteries and think that’s a fine, well-established vehicle for exploring complex ideas without getting too bogged down in other details. Also, Forest and Sargent will appear in the second book of my series, Crashland, and exploring them is fun too.

Which came first: imagining the Inspector or learning about Möbius Syndrome?

In my first conception of him, the Inspector was very much a Bogart figure, damaged face and all, but that felt both obvious and gratuitous. I wanted something that was interesting as an idea and as a mirror of the character, so I went digging on the internet and found the very real and tragic Möbius Syndrome, an extremely rare congenital disorder that renders people unable to move their eyes or form facial expressions. That seemed just perfect, and the fact that it had an evocative name helped too. Everything unfolded from there, Forest, Sargent and her girlfriend, Billie, and their relationships with each other. The way Billie helps Forest function as a person in the everyday, by “sculpting” the expressions he employs, makes her an offstage collaborator that I’m keen to bring onstage one day.

What inspired the core conceit about re-inventing money?

The Forest and Sargent stories are mysteries, but they’re also about exploring the society of Twinmaker and the values of the people who live in that society. Sometimes the mystery part comes first, as it did in “The Missing Metatarsals,” but in this case it was an idea that’s been around for a very long time. While researching matter-transmitter stories for my PhD on the subject, I found one from 1945 called “Pandora’s Millions” by George O. Smith, in which an economic collapse caused by the invention of a matter duplicator is staved off by a second invention: identium, an element that can’t be duplicated. The idea seemed worth revisiting. After every technological revolution there are always people who long for the good old days (of horse and buggy, of writing letters, of reading paper books, whatever)—why not someone who missed the rock-hard bedrock sense of value that money gives to any system of exchange? As a science fiction writer (one who dropped out of an economics degree to boot) I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what life might be like in a post-scarcity environment. It was fun to turn the situation on its head and take a look at us from the other side.

I liked your line about what Sargent’s great-aunt called the fabbers. Can you talk a little about the balance of, and your approaches to, introducing new terms when worldbuilding?

Part of it’s driven by my gut. You need a certain number of neologisms or retooled familiar terms to give each story a desired SF flavour, but at the same time you want the language to draw the reader into the world rather than completely alienate them from it. I find this tug-of-war creatively stimulating in part because it’s so challenging. I know what feels right to me, but will it work for anyone else? I took weeks to settle on “the Air” as the future of cloud computing, for instance—it was in fact suggested by my wife, who’s not a reader of SF at all (I took that as a good sign). With “fabricator” vs “fabber,” the former felt old-fashioned even to me, like something from an old story, so I decided to use that as a signifier of out-datedness in the world of “Face Value,” since that’s another very important function of jargon: to give us information about the people who use it.

The layers of meaning in the title, “Face Value,” took a while to sink in. Did the title influence the story or was it a felicitous capstone after the story was complete?

The working title was “The Counter-Counterfeiter,” which never sat well with me, so while writing the story I was definitely on the lookout for something else, something with layers. “Face Value” didn’t leap out at me at first, but it certainly had the layers. These are puzzle stories, not just driven by something weird to do with d-mat and what constitutes a crime in this society, but also with our expectation of who the characters are and how they should behave. For instance, it would be easy to define Inspector Forest as an ABC man with a disability, but who is he really? What is his true face? Each story (I hope) unpacks in interesting ways, and over several stories we’ll see the characters unpack a bit more too.

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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.