Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Vandana Singh

You have said the assumption that scientific and technological progress is always good needs to be challenged. What do you most enjoy when writing stories that question this assumption?

Well, context is important. So you have to ask: Progress for whom? Progress at what cost? Currently we take it for granted that science and technology must advance at the cost of the environment and the poor, to the point where we are hardly aware of these costs unless we hear about a sweatshop in China manufacturing parts for our gizmos, or some mining disaster in a conveniently remote part of the globe. To me, it is not progress if it destroys people, communities, and the environment. If development is achieved through destruction, as in the current model, shouldn’t we critique it and look for alternatives? If scientific knowledge is gained at the cost of great harm to others—consider the Nazi medical experiments on Jewish prisoners—can we say that the ends justify the means? I suspect most of us would say absolutely not. I am not at all advocating that we go live in caves, but that we use our intelligence and imagination to come up with a vision of true progress, based on equity among people and harmony with the environment.

If I may say it again—it is good thinking to always look at context, at the big picture, before we say whether some complex issue is “good” or “bad.” For example, take genetic engineering. I am not against the idea per se, although there are some important ethical issues that must be addressed. I’ve used the concept in some of my stories. But genetic engineering technology in the hands of profit-based corporations? Shouldn’t that be keeping us up at night? Why should we assume that the profit motive always coincides with the public interest? Plus, I think we should have respect for other ways of thinking, rather than dismissing them because they don’t match with the generally accepted paradigm. Consider Bolivia’s legal framework for giving rights to Mother Nature—these rights include the right of living organisms not to be genetically modified by humans. Even if you disagree with it, that is a perfectly valid position from their perspective. We practice a kind of colonialist and undemocratic arrogance when we insist that the modern “scientific” (read “profit-based industry”) position on genetic engineering, or similar issues, is the only valid one.

The point I am making is that so much technology is imposed on us from above, from the powers-that-be, and we are used to passively accepting that situation. So I am interested in technology arising from communities, from people’s needs, from the ground up, which is, at the same time, non-exploitative of people and nature. That’s why stories are so wonderful as a medium to think through this issue—they are all about context, and they allow free rein to the imagination.

There is quite a bit of speculative science in the story—can you talk about why weaving speculative physics and biology with known scientific concepts intrigues you?

Well, my background is in theoretical physics, and I grew up reading science fiction. In fact, I got into the sciences because of that early reading. So I am intrigued by science ideas more than by technological innovation (although the two are not necessarily separate). Playing with scientific ideas is a wonderful intellectual exercise. Science fiction allows us to go a step further by letting us imagine a universe where, for example, the Big Bang didn’t happen, or one where some physical law is different. In this story, I play with the idea of spacetime ripples or gravitational waves generated by an exotic propulsion drive on a large ship. Imagine the ripples from an object or a boat moving through water (note, however, that gravitational waves are qualitatively quite different from water waves). Suppose you were an insect-sized alien in a tiny flying craft flitting over the waves in the water—if you oriented your craft on the boat-side of each crest as it forms, and let the crest hit you, you would be bumped forward toward the boat. That is one way a low-tech revolutionary group might take advantage of a technology to which they otherwise have no access. (To make it work, I throw in some exotic matter which behaves differently with spacetime ripples than ordinary matter—but this is the kind of detail that doesn’t need to be in this particular story). Then, of course, there is the drive itself—how would a spaceship generate the kinds of waves that are generally thought to come from very energetic cosmological events such as supernova explosions? Even a large spaceship is nothing compared to the mass of a supernova! There are some really intriguing speculative, theoretical ideas that one might draw on for this. So even when I am thinking up wild technologies, I do so in the context of the scientific ideas behind it. A lot of speculative science-fictional ideas are hand-wavy and magical in the Clarkian sense, especially when talking about far future exotic technologies, but I like to do the intellectual exercise of making an internally consistent imaginative-theoretical scaffolding around the idea, whether or not it shows up in the story. It’s fun! I got into science—specifically theoretical physics—because I wanted to know the great general principles, the patterns in the tapestry of nature, if you will. That’s what guides my science-fictional imagination as well.

Did you start this story with the character Leli and her ethics, or the world building?

The story has an interesting origin. I used to make up intricate stories and story-worlds for my daughter, including a space-opera that featured a group of space explorers led by a middle-aged woman who had helped bring about a post-corpocracy universe. I came up with a number of adventures, both comic and suspenseful, and I still remember some half-dozen of these stories. Thinking about them earlier this year, it occurred to me to write about the hero of those stories before she became a legend, when she was a young nobody in the revolution against Euphoria. So this story is a looking-back for her after she became famous, became an icon, and then was half-forgotten as a person, although the icon lived on. So I guess both the character and the world existed before this story, and as far as I remember, they both came into being simultaneously, because our hero wouldn’t be who she is without the events that shaped her.

How critical was it to you to include Leli’s anguish at the end?

Absolutely critical. In a conflict such as this one, I think it is important to recognize that one must not become the enemy, because then you’ve already lost the war. I dislike black-and-white narratives where “good” and “bad” are simplistically delineated. This doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the evil that people can commit. But we also have to look at the potential for evil within ourselves. This is something I first learned from the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—that apart from the battle that rages outside of us, there is also the battle within, and they influence each other. So for Leli to think of the dead in terms of “collateral damage,” to use the newspeak of our times, instead of fully facing the reality she has wrought, emotionally and otherwise, would be unacceptable.

Do you plan to set more stories in this world of the Euphoria Corpocracy?

As I mentioned earlier, the post-corpocracy stories already exist in my head, at least the ones I still remember, and if I write those down some day, I will likely also write more stories about Leli’s youth. As I said, later she becomes famous (under another name), and it would be interesting to see how Leli becomes the older hero looking back at her life, and still having adventures and growing as a person.

What was the spark for this story?

The immediate spark was this: I was thinking about that older heroine and wondering how she came to be who she is. And I thought—I have to tell a story or stories about her youth. After a while the image came to me of this young woman who is both wiser than her years and naïve, and who has suffered and seen death already, but loves life—and she was sitting cramped in a tiny spacecraft, waiting for something. Later I realized what she was waiting for—a salvage ship—and why, and the story came to me then.

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Lee Hallison

Lee Hallison

Lee Hallison writes fiction in an old Seattle house where she lives with her patient spouse, an impatient teen, two lovable dogs, and the memories of several wonderful cats. She’s held many jobs—among them a bartender, a pastry chef, a tropical plant-waterer, a CPA, and a university lecturer. An East Coast transplant, she simply cannot fathom cherry blossoms in March.