Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear should be a familiar name for anyone who even dabbles in science fiction and fantasy. Not only did she catapult into the scene by winning the Campbell Award for Best New Author in 2005, she never lost momentum. She followed that with a Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2006, multiple Hugo awards for her short fiction, and currently has over fifteen books in print, including several written with Sarah Monette. Bear is also extremely active in the science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) community, appearing at genre conventions, readings, teaching engagements, and writing workshops, and she reviews books and shows for a number of venues, including Ideomancer, Realms of Fantasy, Tor.com, and her own blog.

One of the most fascinating things about Bear’s work is the impossibility of confining it to a single genre. She’s written Shakespearian England into the middle of a faerie war in her Promethean Age novels, and mixed science fiction and Norse mythology into a post-apocalyptic world in her Edda of Burdens series. Even her short stories run the gamut of creativity: “Tideline,” which won a Hugo, is from the point of view of a war machine who creates funeral necklaces from salvaged stone. “Orm the Beautiful” tells of a singing dragon and the woman who listens to his song. And in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” which also won a Hugo, Bear takes the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired shapeless, protoplasmic beings and sets them in Maine in the 1930s, as war looms on the horizon.

She puts the reader to work, giving nothing away easily. She excels at threading clues throughout the plot, all the while weaving a fascinating dance of intrigue and color which all comes together in a thrilling ride. She doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects, which spawn a flurry of approving reviews and newly loyal readers as well as disapproving comments. Her series are occasionally written out of order, and while they work as standalones, the reading order can influence the reading experience, making Bear’s books even more unusual.

And as a bonus Bear is personable to her readers, sharing a glimpse at the way she thinks, writes, and lives. A good amount of her short fiction is available online. A little searching can unearth her monthly posts at Storytellers Unplugged and other indications of her web presence, e.g., her opinions on fan fiction at Subterranean Magazine, which frequently publishes her work. But the real treasure is her blog, which provides a glimpse into the life of this author who opens the doors to other worlds through her writing, even while she appeals to logic with her presumptuous cat, discusses how much experience a writer needs to be legit, and regularly checks in on her writing progress, almost as if she needs her readers to keep her accountable.

But really, the SF/F world needs her.

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You seem to follow up every science fiction book with a fantasy book, and vice versa. If you had to choose between the genres, which would it be? Or is that an impossible question?

I think it’s an invalid question, not an impossible one. People like to set up lots of arbitrary categories and have subgenre slapfights about which species of speculative fiction is morally superior to which other species of SF/F. I think the arguments over which are better (or, cod help us, more “moral”) are very much rooted in insecurity.  I don’t think they’re different genres. There’s a reason they share shelf space in the bookstore. I don’t approach science fiction and fantasy any differently, except in the limits I put on my worldbuilding. In fantasy, they’re derived from myth and logic; in science fiction, they’re derived from physics and logic. Plenty of (probably) fantastical tropes are grandfathered in as science fiction—psionics, time travel, faster-than-light travel.

So given these familiar tropes of science fiction and the relationship of science fiction to fantasy, where do you see SF/F fiction going in the next few years?

 

I keep saying I’m not a futurist, I’m a social commentator. To be a social commentator, I also have to be a trendspotter. I see the next ten years of SF/F as moving away from singularity stories and into bioengineering. Steampunk is not so much a subgenre as a design aesthetic: I imagine it’s got a few more years to run as a hot trend. Zombies and vampires continue to duke it out for supremacy. And romance will never die.

You have tremendous productivity. What’s your secret, and when it comes down to it, is it the deadlines that drive you or the stories?

It’s butt in chair. It takes me six to fourteen hours to turn out what some of my friends can produce in an hour, but I put in those six or fourteen hours more days than not. If I can produce fifteen-hundred words a day, it adds up, if I do it every day … I think it’s the stories that drive me—although if they weren’t going to be read, they wouldn’t drive me as hard.

You often put your characters through some serious black moments, and force them to make a decision to either buck up or ship out, in a manner of speaking. I’ve read interviews where other authors find themselves seriously affected when they do this to the characters they’ve been living with day in and day out … does this affect you, too?

 

Oh, yeah. I think to write it honestly, I have to pull it around myself like a shroud. It’s a kind of method writing—often I’ll find my musical taste, my taste in food, whatever, strongly affected by my characters—and I know I’m doing it right with regards to a book when I make myself cry.

While we’re on honesty, you frequently share in your blog what you’re working on in your writing at any particular time, whether its obsessing over detail, thickening out your secondary characters, or revealing the birth (and alterations) of a single paragraph. What would you say your biggest challenge in your writing is now?

Oh good. Right now, I’m trying to find ways to make my work more accessible without losing depth. Adding a layer on top, basically, rather than subtracting layers. I’ve been working on this for a long time. Also, I’m working on making my sentences more linear. I have a tendency to try to get everything into the page at the same time, and it winds up like ten guys going through a door at once. If they just took turns, it’d be no big deal, but…

You’re known for taking famous (and infamous) myths or characters, spinning them around a bit, and weaving them into something brand new. What appeals to you about reworking something old into something new?

 

I love myths and archetypes. I always have: I’m a little bit of a mythology addict. But I’m much more interested in using those ideas as the foundation for exploration than I am writing straight interpretations. It’s the Folk Process—it’s the way the development of narrative works. Look at the development on the Matter of Britain over the last fifteen-hundred years—Arthur used to have a sister, and Lancelot is a relatively late addition to the canon. Or look at something like the versions of “Tam Lin” or “Stagger Lee” or “John Henry.” Everybody tweaks a little bit, and some people reinvent totally. I think it’s better to go back to the source material, anyway, and bring out your own version, than produce yet another watered-down imitation of Tolkien or Heinlein.

Besides the mythology, if someone gathered up all your books and short stories and analyzed the most frequently appearing themes, they could probably create a lovely flowchart of gender, equality, interracial relationships, dysfunctional families, and many more (potentially) controversial subjects. Do you write about these issues intentionally, or do they just slip into your stories on their own?

 

You know, I write the world I know. I grew up with divorced parents, in a same-sex household with a Middle Eastern step-parent, who happened to be abusive. I’m a child abuse survivor. I was raised pagan. I’m bisexual and divorced. My grandfather was an immigrant. I’ve got a family tree speckled with addicts and abuse survivors. My godsons’ mother is first-generation Indian and Scottish. Her husband is from a Yankee family that came over on the Mayflower. I can’t write a world where everybody is white, straight, and Christian. It’d be a lie … I’d probably sell better if I could get rid of all the queer people in my books. But what are you gonna do, lie?

 

Let’s talk about some of your science fiction. Hammered, in the Jenny Casey series, which also includes Scardown and Worldwired, won the Locus award for Best First Novel in 2006. Why is it you’ve never returned to this world, or, at least, this kind of urban/modern storytelling in books?

 

I have written a short story since then, about how she met Razorface. Otherwise, Jenny’s story was done. She’d reached a closure point, and if I wanted to tell more stories about her, I would have had to destroy her life again. I have a hard time repeating myself—I tend to do a thing, and then do a different thing. This is a source of great despair to marketing departments, I suspect!

 

Grail, the third book in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, was just released. For our readers who haven’t read any of the previous books yet, what’s a good reason for them to get out and pick up Dust (the first in the trilogy) today?

 

I like Dust because it was my first real attempt to write a straightforward adventure story. I’m not usually a very linear narrator, but Dust kind of just rolls along. It’s secretly a Gothic novel under its SF veils, for values of Gothic novel that include “a love story between a girl and an evil house.” But the evil house is a generation ship…

 

You’ve written A Companion to Wolves with Sarah Monette, a book in which the lines between human and animal within a Norse/Germanic culture in wartime are blurred. The sequel The Tempering of Men, comes out in August, and you’re currently writing the third, An Apprentice to Elves. Those books are more fantasy than science fiction, but you’ve also collaborated on several short stories together. How do you and Monette make this writing partnership so efficient and successful?

 

I write until I get stuck or bored, and then I send it to her, and she edits what I wrote and then writes new text until she gets stuck or bored. She sends it back to me, and I edit what she wrote and then write until I get stuck or bored. Lather, rinse, repeat….

We tend to cover each other’s weak points: she forces me to be concrete and specific when I want to wander off trying to nail down and articulate complicated and nuanced philosophical obscurities; I go after her adjectives and secondary characters with a hatchet; she makes me linear; I provide plot; and she makes me explain myself more.

You’re currently on Season 3 of Shadow Unit, where you write episodes alongside Emma Bull, Holly Black, Amanda Downum, Sarah Monette, Leah Bobet, Will Shetterly, and Chelsea Polk. Written in installments exclusively online (although plans are in the work to extend that to print), Shadow Unit features a police force that deals with the fantastic and unbelievable, in a serial format. What has working on Shadow Unit been like for you?

 

I love Shadow Unit. It’s all the fun of a role playing game, and I get to be the GM and play all the characters. Also, it’s just a nifty fun world, full of nifty fun things written by nifty fun writers. And the fan community is awesome!

 

You’re going to be at Clarion—a science fiction and fantasy workshop—this summer. What do you like the most about it? The least?

 

Well, I’ve taught Clarion West before. This is my first time teaching the Mothership, however … I love teaching. I figure if I do nothing else in this life, handing out as much of what I’ve learned about my craft to as many people as possible will at least justify my carbon footprint somewhat. I love the fact that I learn other things while teaching. I do hate the travel and the time off work, though.

 

You have a link to an essay you wrote on your website, called “Join me or Die.” What inspired that?

Well, I wrote that a long time ago back in the mid 1990s but if I recall correctly, I was attempting to express why it is that we find characters like Vader so compelling—and I think it’s because we see in them something we need. We have a tendency to deny the unpretty sides of ourselves, even while we are living them. I think if we accept that darkness exists in everything we do, then we master it, rather than being at its mercy. It’s a part of everything—and everyone—being connected. Not in a fuzzy new age sort of way, but in a very real web of interreliance and cooperation. I can’t do my job without farmers in Illinois and engineers in China. “Nothing human can be alien to me.”

Your current work in progress, Rez, is what you call on your blog a “high-concept optimistic SF novella.” Can you tell us anything more about it?

 

It’s sitting open on my desktop as I type this response. It’s not sold to anybody yet, or finished, so I have no idea when it will be readable. Actually, I’m kind of avoiding it by answering these questions—I need it to gel, and right now I have a huge pile of Cool Stuff and Nifty Ideas and no actual narrative to tie them together. So I stare into space and practice guitar and do research…

 

I think we all want to know how to make your ginger beer.

Hah! I just started a batch today. Get an old clean soda bottle and put a lot of fresh-grated ginger in it—like half a cup, LOTS. Juice of one lemon, half cup sugar, half cup honey, one teaspoon yeast, fill with cold water. Cap and set in a corner of the kitchen until the bottle gets hard. Then stick it in the fridge to drink at your leisure. Yum! (Beware exploding bottles.)

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.