Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Tom Crosshill

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Tom Crosshill to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son.”

Tom CrosshillYou studied physics at Reed College. How did this influence your writing of “Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son?” Is any of the science of the story based on actual physics?

“Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son” is definitely an idea piece and it’s very much motivated by actual physics.

I’ve had the central idea for a while. Some years ago Roger Penrose proposed the idea that the human brain relies on quantum properties for computation, using this to explain away self-awareness and intelligence (he was not the first or only person to express similar ideas, but he’s the best known). The idea is not very highly regarded in the scientific community, but it occurred to me that there might be an actual way to prove (or at least strongly imply) it correct. Namely this:

What if you took a very young human brain and placed it in a complex simulated quantum-like environment? Might it learn to adapt to this environment and predict its behavior in real time as accurately as we predict the behavior of the real world (for a quantum-mechanical, probabilistic meaning of “predict”)? If it did, that would be a very strong indication that the human brain does indeed rely on quantum phenomena to make sense of the world (it seems unlikely, though I haven’t spent much time on this, that a non-quantum brain would be capable of such a feat).

All that said, there are limits to how rigorous the physics of such a story can be from scene to scene. The implementation of the experiment and the simulated quantum environment of the story are more suggestions of directions that might be explored than an actual roadmap and no doubt have many holes. The quantum phenomena that come through in the story—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and quantum tunneling among others—are depicted evocatively for the reader’s sake. The actual reality of such an experiment would undoubtedly be a lot more complicated, a lot harder to understand and hopefully a lot less exciting.

How did you come up with the character of Zhenya? Why choose to let him speak only through letters?

For the science fictional conceit of the story, I needed a protagonist with a mind fresh enough to be extremely malleable. For the sake of the narrative, I needed someone with some emotional range and life experiences to draw on. Zhenya was the result—a boy with an ailing, twisted mother. Young enough to adapt, scarred enough to provide a canvas for my story (though he doesn’t realize it).

As to the epistolary format of the story, the principal reason is that I wanted Zhenya to have certain powerful relationships—with his mother, with Sulyik, with Olga—but it didn’t make sense for all of them to manifest in the VR environment. I thought in particular that I could build the relationship with his mother most effectively this way. By showing Zhenya’s thoughts and letting the audience read between the lines I aimed to draw his relationships without devoting much actual screen time to other characters.

Also, as many readers will have probably noticed, on a structural (as opposed to conceptual) level this story can be read as a dialogue with Daniel Keyes’s famous “Flowers for Algernon.” This was a deliberate choice from the outset. I loved how Keyes uses the letter format to show the evolution (and devolution) of Charlie, his protagonist. I thought the scientists in the story got off rather easy, though—they were lucky Charlie didn’t turn all Hannibal Lecter on them while at his peak. And I was a bit frustrated by the traditional circular story arc, whereby the story ends much as it started, with the protagonist having undergone a journey.

I decided to use a similar epistolary framework to illustrate this twisted science-fictional concept I’d had for years. Instead of Keyes’s circular story structure, though, I chose something more open-ended—I wanted to really push how far I could take my protagonist over the course of the story. I didn’t want a happy fairy tale ending, but I did want real long-term consequences for everyone involved. (I also wanted to include a tribute to Algernon, everyone’s favorite lab mouse—that was part of the motivation for introducing Sulyik).

Dr. Olga prods and then forces Zhenya to do her bidding. He is afraid, but seems to know when to stop, even when she tortures him. What is she so desperate for him to do? What does she expect will happen?

Her expectation is essentially that she’ll be able to siphon energy from parallel universes. Here I’m making up the science, although along familiar lines. Essentially I’m postulating a new kind of energy conservation law—that energy need not be conserved in any one given universe, but must be conserved across all parallel universes.

What Dr. Olga didn’t reckon with was that the folks in the other universes might want to keep their energy—and that someone else had probably tried this before.

What made you decide to set this story in the Russian Federation?

Russia has had an incredibly strong military-scientific complex from Soviet times, but the rule of law is lax. Experimenting on children might be a stretch, but it would be easier to get away with it there than in the States.

Also, being from Eastern Europe myself, I find I’m drawn to that part of the world in many of my stories.

It takes Zhenya some time before he can find the food place. It is only after he meets the dragon that his pathways change and he can think “qantumikally.” Why does this happen to Sulyik before it happens to Zhenya?

Sulyik is less distracted by conscious thought and analysis, and can make the transition intuitively. That’s why the system really puts Zhenya through the wringer to get him to learn—the changes he has to make don’t occur on the level of conscious thought.

Why gnomes?

Ha. This question seems to come up over and over again. I meant the castle and the gnomes to illustrate Dr. Olga’s half-hearted, slapdash efforts at making Zhenya at home in the VR environment. No doubt she’s using stock art assets and cardboard NPCs, but she does want the experiment to seem like a fairytale to Zhenya. No matter that it comes across like the Brothers Grimm on a particularly mean-spirited day—at least she’s trying.

But why gnomes in particular? I like gnomes. And their fluffy hats.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the story?

Despite my extensive answers above, I tend to think a story should be in the text. If I’ve done my job right, close readings of the story should be rewarded with an idea or two not immediately apparent.

Your website says that you’re working on a novel. Can you talk to us a little about that?

I’m writing a very dark young adult novel tentatively called Shard. It’s a growing-up tale set in a post-Singularity world where humans are no longer the top predator. I describe it as a cross of The Hunger Games and X-Men, with giant robots.

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Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg

Stacey Friedberg is an editorial assistant at Penguin Books for Young Readers. She enjoys reading, writing, and cooking. You can follow her (very infrequent) tweets via @stacabird.