Our guest today is Charlie Jane Anders, former editor-in-chief of io9. She also won a Hugo award in 2012 for her story “Six Months, Three Days.” We’ll be speaking with her today about her first fantasy novel, All the Birds in the Sky, about two friends who find themselves on opposite sides of a war between witches and mad scientists.
This interview first appeared in January 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Tell us a bit about how you first got into reading fantasy and science fiction.
I think I was always obsessed with science fiction and fantasy from a young age. Some of my earliest memories of reading are authors like Lloyd Alexander, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was a book that I read early on when I was young and impressionable. I read all of the Doctor Who novels by Terrance Dicks and other authors when I was a kid. And then Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Those were sort of my gateway books, I think, to reading in general, but especially to genre fiction.
I actually saw you say that Douglas Adams was one of your favorite authors.
Yeah, I was obsessed with Douglas Adams, and as a Doctor Who fan, I kind of knew of him, but I became obsessed with his writing, and listened to all of the radio shows and read all the books. I still have a signed picture of him over my desk, which my parents got for me at some point in the ’80s, I guess when I was out of town or sick or something. They went and got me his autograph, which is looking down on me right now, the signed picture of him. And Douglas Adams led me to Kurt Vonnegut, and so I started to read Vonnegut as well, and that ended up having a huge influence on me as well.
What was it about authors like Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut that you really liked?
I mean, it was the humor, and the sort of absurdism of both of their perspectives on the weirdness and craziness of life that really won me over. But also, I think that with both of them there’s a sense of the sadness and futility of people trying to figure out the meaning of existence when they ought to be just trying to be good to each other, I guess, is my way of oversimplifying it. There’s a wistfulness in both of their work that comes through, and that you know you’re constantly being confronted by the stupidity and heedlessness of the cosmos, and people are struggling to do good and make a difference, but there’s just this sort of crushing futility that comes down on you in both of their work. It kind of goes along with the absurdism, but I actually find certain passages in both Vonnegut and Douglas Adams very sad. It comes out of the humor in unexpected ways, which is something that I always love. I always love things that can do that.
I can definitely see how that has influenced your writing, but before we get to that, why don’t you just say a bit about how did you first make contact with other science fiction writers and get involved with the community?
It was a long, slow process. I would go to conventions for years and years, and it never really dawned on me for a long time that conventions were also a place to meet other writers and do writing stuff. I thought of them as places where you dressed up in costumes and went to panels and just kind of hung out and did geeky trivia or something, when I was a teenager and young adult.
I think a big thing for me was actually joining a writing group, a writing workshop, for science fiction writers. That was really where I started to get plugged into more of the actual world of science fiction writing. Until then I had always thought of it of something that you just did in isolation, without talking to anybody else, and you just scribbled away in your room on your latest science fiction story that nobody would ever read, and that was how I thought it went. And so, being in a writing group and being around other writers made me realize that, oh, actually there’s a whole world out there, and I can connect to it. And then, obviously when I was hired to work on io9, that made a huge difference, because all of a sudden I was writing articles about science fiction that people were reading and people wanted to talk to me about them, and going to conventions and going to things like WorldCon became much more about interacting with people who had seen at least my work on io9. So that made a huge difference, obviously.
How did that come about? That you got hired for io9?
It was basically pure luck. Nick Denton, who owns and runs Gawker Media, is a huge science fiction fan. He’s obsessed with Asimov in particular. He had always wanted to do a science fiction blog, and he got connected with Annalee Newitz, my partner, who I worked with on a magazine called Other for several years. She was working at Wired Magazine at the time, and he approached her about starting this science fiction blog that he wanted to do, and amazingly she thought of including me in that because we’d already collaborated on some other stuff, and she was able to convince them to bring me into it pretty early. And that was the most amazing opportunity. It was basically like my dream job. It was getting to spout off and share my kind of ill-informed opinions about science fiction and fantasy with the whole internet; it was just an incredible opportunity. I’m still amazed that that came about. It’s still hard to believe that I get to do this every day, and that I get paid to do this. It’s kind of nuts.
When it was first starting out, what was your initial vision for the site? What were you hoping to accomplish with it?
Nick’s vision, which we shared, was that this would be a site whose main thesis is that science fiction has become mainstream culture, and that science fiction, to some extent, has come true. Like, we’re living in a science fictional world. The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson says, and that we are living in a world where we’re constantly seeing things that would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago. So, basically the vision of the site was, instead of treating science fiction like a specialty topic, or something aimed at a niche audience, we automatically assumed it was a mainstream topic and we were talking about mainstream culture, and that our readers were ordinary people who just happened to love science fiction. And then Annalee’s brilliant addition to that was that one way to get at the fact that science fiction has become reality is by talking about science as well, and so the idea of blending science and science fiction on one website and having them side by side and informing each other and feeding into each other was really, I think, the thing that made io9 such a unique vision for several years.
I saw that Annalee said that she was kind of inspired by Omni Magazine. She wanted to do something kind of like that.
Yeah, that was something we talked about constantly, and I know that Annalee was just obsessed with Omni Magazine when she was younger and that that was a huge part of her dream for io9. And actually, weirdly, like the last couple of times I went into Gawker’s offices in New York, there’s a big magazine rack, and for some reason it’s now just stuffed with old copies of Omni from the late ’70s, early ’80s. So somebody there is also a huge fan.
I also saw in this article that Annalee said, “Charlie Jane and I never thought io9 would last more than a year.” What were some of the challenges when you started out?
Well, it was more just that at the time Gawker Media was starting a lot of sites pretty regularly, and a lot of them they tried for a while and didn’t last, or in some cases they got sold or spun off. I think that io9 just seemed like a huge experiment, it seemed like a crazy venture that nobody knew if it was going to work or not. The whole idea of blending science and science fiction seemed kind of risky or out there or whatever, and the whole idea of just doing a whole site about those topics, it seemed like something that just might not reach a big enough audience or might not win over people who were interested in those topics. It was a huge question mark.
You think you’ve had a big success though reaching out beyond the hardcore science fiction fans and bringing in, as you said, just ordinary people.
It seems like it. We obviously have a really great community of regular readers, and the people who write in the comments every single day on io9 are some of the smartest, most erudite and thoughtful people I know. I always get a thrill out of reading the comments, but it seems as though on a good day we’re reaching way beyond our core audience into an audience of people who don’t think of themselves as science fiction or fantasy fans, but just enjoy Star Trek, Star Wars, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson. There’s no question that the audience of people who read William Gibson is more diverse or bigger or wider or something along those lines than people who would go to a convention.
So io9 has been going now for about eight years? Is that right?
Yeah, I started working on it in mid-2007, and it really cranked into high gear in the fall of 2007. And then we publicly launched at the start of 2008, so it’s been about eight years now.
Are there any big milestones that stand out? Or any big lessons you’ve learned in those eight years?
A big milestone was when the word io9 was kind of snuck into an episode of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s TV show. And that was only like a couple years after we launched, I’m guessing. Because when was Dollhouse on? It was like . . . it was the second season and Summer Glau says the words io9 on television, which was just, holy cow, that’s insane.
And lessons are just . . . I think over time I’ve learned so much in general about genre and storytelling and how to write about these topics in a slightly more nuanced fashion. I feel as though my learning curve just in general doing io9 has been ridiculously steep, and I’m still learning, sometimes through horrible mistakes, but sometimes just through figuring stuff out as I go. Every day, I’m still learning about how to write about these topics in a smart way. In what I hope is a smart way, I guess I should say. In a less dumb way, I should say.
And you’ve been working on your own fiction. Were you working on it the whole time? Or did you take a break from it for a little while?
I’ve been working on fiction for as long as I can remember, and definitely for the last fifteen years it’s been what I consider my career. When I started io9, it was with the idea that I was going to just keep writing fiction the whole time, and io9 would be the best day job in the world, but still my day job. For the first six months, basically from November 2007 to sometime in 2008, I did have to quit writing fiction, which is the longest period that I’ve gone, that I can remember, where I wasn’t writing fiction. It was really hard. It was hard for me to put that aside, I was in the middle of writing an epic fantasy novel that ended up not getting published anyway, but it was a novel that I was excited about at the time. I had to put it aside and focus on io9 because working on that site was every waking minute for about six months. And then you get to where you can do the same things in less time, and the things that were taking you hours are now taking you a lot less because you’ve gotten better or faster or whatever.
You mentioned that you’ve been involved with writer’s groups. Were those pro writers in those groups? Or other aspiring writers?
It was other aspiring writers. I guess I’ve been in one group where there were pro writers. But generally the groups I’ve been in have been just other people who were trying to break in. The first one I joined, there was nobody who had really broken out in the group, although there were people who had been published, and it was just everybody at the same level, so it was really good to get that kind of support from other people who were just sending their stuff out and getting piles of rejections all of the time.
When did you really start breaking into print?
It was a slow and kind of weird process. Probably my first big publication was Strange Horizons, which is true of a lot of writers I know. Strange Horizons was great about accepting people who were new and untested. They worked with me a lot on that story to make it better. Around the time I was getting into Strange Horizons, I was also branching out into literary fiction and erotica and a couple of other genres. I actually sold a story to a pretty well-known literary magazine, in I guess 2001, Zyzzyva. It’s a magazine that’s well known on the West Coast at least. So that was a weird fluke. Again, Zyzzyva really believed in pulling people out of the slush, and every single issue they would be very excited to point out which authors were being published for the first time ever. That was a thing that they were really into. That was really nice. Then, basically for the decade that followed, I was just sort of getting a piece here and a piece there, and I was in some pretty big anthologies that were published by HarperCollins and stuff. But it wasn’t until Tor.com started publishing my stories in 2010 or 2011 that I really went on people’s radar screens as a fiction writer, I think. In fact, until the Tor.com stories, I would regularly have people come up to me at conventions and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you wrote fiction.” Because they thought I did io9 and that was all I did.
You had a first novel, Choir Boy, that was not science fiction. When was that published?
That was published in 2005, although I actually mostly wrote it in 2001, and it has maybe a hint of magic realism here and there, but it’s not really a genre novel. It’s a very weird literary novel.
So why did you decide to make your debut in the literary space?
At that time, I was publishing a lot in literary magazines, including a lot of sort of smaller literary magazines that have since folded, unfortunately. And I was very much involved, and I still am involved, in the literary world. I was already running a spoken word series that included a lot of literary people. At that time, I was doing Other Magazine, which published a lot of literary fiction alongside genre fiction. I think that that was, at the time, in the 2005ish, it was sort of a toss-up for me whether I was going to find myself as a science fiction/fantasy writer or as a literary author. They both seemed like directions that were equally open to me, to the extent that either one of them was; neither one of them was exactly wide open, but they were both things that seemed at least equally plausible.
What happens after that? You were working on, I think, like three or four or five different novels then?
Yeah, I wrote a bunch of novels, and I had two novels that I was working on simultaneously after Choir Boy. One was straight up literary fiction with, again, just a hint of magical realism, and the other one was a weird sort of post-apocalyptic/apocalyptic story that I ended up cutting down from 90,000 words to 20,000 words and selling to John Joseph Adams for his Apocalypse Triptych. So, one of those novels actually did kind of see print in the end. But, the literary one never made it out into the world. Partly because the small press publishers all kind of imploded in 2007/2008.
You had one, I think it was kind of an urban fantasy, that you were working on pretty seriously.
That was the last one I did before All the Birds in the Sky, and it was a thing of after those other novels, I was working on this urban fantasy that was sort of a hardboiled noir thing about this guy who is an enforcer for the magical syndicate, and he goes around basically just being a leg breaker. I still really like that novel a lot. I think it has got a lot of really interesting stuff in it. I went on a huge kick in college and after college of reading basically everything by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald and Dashiell Hammett, but also people like Mickey Spillane, who I think is an underrated writer. I read all of Mickey Spillane’s books at one point. I love that kind of noir, hardboiled, violent, dark, gritty sensibility. I was really excited to explore that and use it in a fantasy setting. Especially after reading things like Sandman Slim and Harry Connolly’s books and Seanan McGuire has some of that as well in her October Daye novels. I love that kind of stuff. It was really fun to explore that, and it was also a really silly, funny book in some ways. But it seemed like the people who I showed it to liked it but didn’t love it, the urban fantasy book. People said, “Oh yeah, that was really fun.” But nobody seemed really excited about it, and it felt like something that other people could have written, whereas All the Birds in the Sky, when I was getting further into that, felt like something only I could have written, for better or worse. In some ways that might not be such a good thing, but you know, it was more uniquely my work. The other thing, I’ve blogged about this, but after I wrote “Six Months, Three Days,” which was that novelette that won the Hugo and got some attention in general, it felt like a novel that was closer to that in terms of tone and ideas . . . was maybe more in line with what people seemed to be enjoying about my writing in general. It just seemed like a better idea to focus on All the Birds in the Sky.
For people who haven’t read “Six Months, Three Days,” why don’t you say a little bit more about what that one is about?
Basically, “Six Months, Three Days,” like All the Birds in the Sky, is a relationship story. And it’s using a relationship between two people to, hopefully in a non-bludgeony way, explore some big ideas. In “Six Months, Three Days,” there are two clairvoyants, people who can see the future, but one of them, this guy Doug, sees a fixed future that cannot be changed at all. It’s basically just like one set future, whatever he sees will happen, is doomed to happen, and there’s no changing it. Whereas Judy sees a multitude of possible futures and she believes that she can choose among them, and that she can actually influence what happens in the future. So it’s the whole fate versus freewill, determinism argument, but dramatized through a relationship in which basically one person believes the course of the relationship is already completely set in stone, and the other person kind of believes that there might be some wiggle room. It’s a story that’s kind of sad, but also has a little bit of hopefulness in it. The big challenge for me in that story was how to have a satisfying resolution while also dealing with the question . . . they can’t both be right, but they kind of both are right, and how does that work?
I saw that actually some philosophy classes now are having the students read the story in the class.
That’s insane. I guess I had heard that. That’s kind of nuts. If they’re getting something out of it, that’s great. My dad was a philosophy professor, so the thought of people studying that in philosophy classes is kind of amazing.
That story wins the Hugo, and then where were you in the process of writing All the Birds in the Sky at that time?
I was definitely in the middle of it. I was in the trenches of it. I remember when I went to the Nebula Awards where “Six Months, Three Days” was also nominated. I was at the Nebula Awards, and I was sitting with my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden at the bar, and I mentioned to him that I had this novel that was basically at that point just a pile of notebooks that I had scribbled in, and that if my apartment burned down while I was traveling at the Nebulas, the novel was gone. Otherwise I was really excited about it. I think everybody was like, “You should scan those or do something so that you have some kind of backup.” I was at a table full of people and everybody was horrified.
You said on your blog, “There were a few years that I was straight up terrified that absolutely nobody was going to get this book.” What was it about All the Birds in the Sky that made you nervous in that way?
There’s a downside to spending all of your time on the internet reading people arguing about books and about writing and about stories. I knew that there were some things that I was doing in this book that might rub people the wrong way. Just the fact that it starts out as a young adult novel, and then about a hundred pages in, you jump forward and they’re suddenly in their twenties. Some people were just not going to like that. The fact that the narrator is kind of weird. It’s definitely a book that’s third person omniscient, but most of the time it’s a very tight omniscient, which is one of the things I like about omniscient narration, that you can actually go as tight as you want to. You can be completely in one character’s head for a dozen pages, and only see what that character sees and know what that character knows, but you have the option to pull back and have a moment of omniscience, and that’s a technique that fiction writers have been using forever, but it’s something that’s more unfamiliar to, I think, today’s readers. There’s a part of the book where the narrator does something kind of obnoxious where Patricia and Laurence are watching people go by on this escalator, and they’re speculating about the people based on what their shoes look like because that’s all they can see of them, and then it turns out that they’re actually right about one of the people going by on the escalator, and that’s just, like, a funny, weird thing that the narrator does, and I was sort of like, “Oh, this is going to be the moment where a lot of people throw the book across the room.” So I definitely had that at times, where I was doing things that I thought were kind of risky and kind of breaking some of what people had been told were the rules of fiction writing. And I had [the thought] in the back of my mind that there were going to be people who were going to object violently to what I was doing.
You mentioned Patricia and Laurence, why don’t you say a little bit more about them?
They’re the main characters of All the Birds in the Sky. Patricia is a witch, and she has magical powers from an early age. Early on she finds that she can talk to animals, although this is not an ability that she can call on whenever she wants it or that is, like, reliable. It’s something that just sort of happens on occasion. And she grows up feeling super isolated, but also super passionate about achieving her destiny as a witch and becoming the person that she was supposed to be. She feels like nothing in her life will make sense unless she can actually use magic and be this kind of person who can actually make a difference. The reason why she actually wants to be a witch is so she can help people and also help creatures. She sees that there’s all this suffering in the world, and she really wants to do something about it. And one of her main things is compassion, but also she’s really, really shaped by the fact that her parents didn’t approve of her when she was growing up. She always kind of wants that approval from people, but she also resents the fact that she wants that approval. She has a complicated relationship with other people in that way.
Laurence, meanwhile, is the mad scientist, and from early on he’s inventing things and building things. He starts writing computer programs when he’s really young, and then he finds these schematics on the internet to build this device that is basically a two-second time machine. You push a button and it jumps you forward in time two seconds. And it’s almost useless, except that occasionally if you’re in a really crappy situation, you can use this device to just jump a little bit ahead and maybe things will have gotten slightly better. He really wants to find other mad scientists and inventors and makers, and he just happens to be stuck in a place where there’s nobody else like that around, and he’s just a little too weird and out there for the other geeks at his school. He’s constantly lighting things on fire and building weird robots and ray guns and stuff. So, he feels like an outcast in sort of a different, but kind of compatible, way than Patricia does.
They find each other in junior high and basically bond over the fact that they’re both outcasts. But, they also have a really kind of thorny, weird relationship in junior high, especially after Patricia starts getting labeled as goth, witch, allegedly kind of a Satanist character. The whole thing of in junior high, even if you’re an outcast, you don’t necessarily want to take on the radioactivity from someone else’s social ostracism. And you know for both of those characters, one of the things that I really obsessed about was making them people, sort of like I said a moment ago, making them people beyond just their designation. Laurence isn’t just your stereotypical scientist who’s coldly rational and constantly being empirical, acting like Mr. Spock, or analyzing everything all the time. He’s got a lot of more complicated emotional issues that he’s dealing with. And Patricia is not just the Earth mother witch that you might expect her to be, but she’s actually kind of a spiky person. The more I delved into the things that played against the stereotype of what you expect these characters to be like, the better I felt like they were just characters, at least hopefully.
Right, I know you wrote several drafts of this book, and I think that that’s one thing that happened over the revisions, right? Is that you kind of stripped out the extraneous genre elements in a way.
That was one of the things that happened, and you know, earlier drafts of the book had aliens and a bunch of other stuff in them. At one point Patricia had this evil wizard that she kept having to fight who was like her Voldemort, and he would just pop up occasionally, and maybe in the end of the book he would have to team up with her because things got that bad. But it was just . . . I was just seeing how much stuff I could throw in, and how much I could get away with, and I was just like, “You know, I’m already writing a crazy book that has kind of a weird concept, why don’t I just see how much I can actually put in there before it just breaks.” And indeed, I put stuff in there until it broke. That was a thing that happened.
I did try to overstuff it with genre elements, and in general it was much more of a kind of genre spoof early on than it became . . . and, like, that was again a thing where things like writing “Six Months, Three Days” and thinking about what kind of story I wanted to tell with this book really changed things for me because I was like, “Okay, what’s really interesting here is the relationship and the relationship only works if we’re emotionally invested in the characters separately and together.” And, there was a eureka moment for me pretty late in the process, like the sixth draft I guess. There was this eureka moment where I was like, “Actually, at this point all of the scenes I really like in this novel are the ones where Laurence and Patricia are together.” And there are good reasons for them to not be together at certain parts of the book, but the more I could push that, and the more I could have them interacting with each other, and having conversations, and dealing with stuff together, the more I was personally invested in the book, and the less it just felt like a jumble of ideas.
Do you see this kind of like a Romeo and Juliet story in any way with the science and magic, rather than two different families?
I think that any great relationship story . . . this is probably one of those generalizations that’s going to get me into trouble, but I think a lot of great relationship stories involve people that have some crucial difference or some major reason for not belonging together or for having opposing viewpoints. If you read any romance novel, that’s what you’ll probably find to some extent. I think conflict also makes any relationship more interesting than two people who agree about everything and just sit around saying, “Yes, quite right. Absolutely.” I think that it’s more dynamic and more interesting if there’s a reason for conflict and disagreement. But, at the same time, I never wanted their relationship to be defined by that. I was surprised by how much I found myself either pushing against that or exploring it from different angles than just they have a disagreement. They do disagree about stuff quite a bit, and there are moments where they argue, but I also wanted it to be more complicated than that, so that when those conflicts came up, it didn’t feel like, “Oh yeah, of course, this is the conflict we’ve just been hammering on throughout the book.”
Then, in addition to this science versus magic conflict, there’s also the conflict between the healer magic versus the trickster magic. Where did that idea come from?
There were a couple parts to that and that’s something that I really was excited by. One part of that was just that I was obsessing for months about how magic works in this book. I had kind of placeholdery stuff that I wasn’t really happy with, and at some point I had to just figure out a rationale and a system for how the magicians, how the witches, in this book would operate. I’ve read a ton of fantasy, and there’s so many different, interesting ways that magic is shaped in different worlds, and I wanted to come up with something that I hadn’t seen before, and it was just hours of staring at a blank computer screen. I finally came up with this idea that there are two schools of magic, and that they’ve been merged. Part of that was I wanted to very much dance around the existence of real life schools of magic, and real life ideas of magic in our world, and I thought that coming up with two very broad umbrella designations of magic was a way to kind of handwave the idea that, yes, there were all of these different magical traditions, but they had been gathered into these two schools, so we didn’t have to worry about getting the details of one of these real-life cultural traditions that are obviously . . . you can’t get stuff like that wrong if you start invoking it, and you have to be really careful with how you invoke it, so I felt like that was a way of cheating a little bit, but also just acknowledging that, yes, there are real-life traditions, and this was just a way of encompassing them. But, also I was fascinated by the idea that there was this dichotomy that already at some point in the past had been found to be a false dichotomy, and that had already been reconciled, and that good magic involved using both of these supposedly opposite viewpoints, and that you were a better magician if you could do both together.
How about this idea that eating spicy food can help unlock your magic powers? Where did that idea come from?
That was a super random, weird thing that came to me, and I don’t even know where that came from. I think it was just a combination of the fact that she grows up in this house that was an old spice warehouse in colonial times, so there’s all these, like, lingering spice fragrances and things and old bits of spices everywhere, and for some reason, in my mind, that turned into this idea that when she eats a lot of spicy food, it’s such a powerful physical sensation that it causes her to leave her body and have this powerful, almost vision quest.
Especially when it comes to magic, there are certain parts of the book where I just kind of went with whatever subconsciously came to me, and didn’t try to analyze it too much, because I wanted the magic to feel a little bit dreamlike and a little bit not entirely logical. I didn’t try to explain to myself too much, but it was a thing that made sense instinctively, but then it was also important that later on she shouldn’t be able to just use that as an automatic thing. Like, “Oh, I eat some spicy food and then I can do magic.” Because nothing should be that easy, ever.
That’s the magic; how about the science in the book? Did you have to do a lot of research for this? Because in the acknowledgements you mention a bunch of people that sound like really gave you some great scientific help with the book.
Yeah, and again, that was a thing where the book started out as sort of a genre spoof a little bit, and it was very much like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. It’s just like, “I’m inventing the something-o-mat. I’m inventing the whatever ray.” And there’s still some of that in there, but at some point I decided that if the science gets too unrealistic and too cartoony then it is almost magic, and if you’re going to have magic and science opposite each other, or alongside each other, then the science has to feel distinct, and the way to do that seemed to be to really try to push it as far as I could in the direction of being somewhat plausible while still having it be unreal enough that it could be mad science, rather than just regular science. It was important to me that Laurence be a mad scientist. He’s not coming up with a new app or whatever. He’s coming up with crazy, out of this world stuff, and part of that was that when he’s a grownup, I wanted him to be in a loft on SOMA, basically in a startup working alongside other science geniuses, not so much in a lair somewhere.
So, for the science, I was lucky that at io9 we had a couple of columns that we used to do. One was called “Ask a Bio Geek” by this Berkeley professor, Terry Johnson, and the other was called “Ask a Physicist” by this Drexel University physics professor, Dr. Dave Goldberg. They’ve both written amazing books. Terry wrote How to Defeat Your Own Clone, or co-wrote, I guess, and Dr. Dave wrote The Universe in the Rearview Mirror. Those are fantastic books that everybody should pick up. And they, to this day, are incredibly generous about being willing to have me just bug them with my nonsense science questions, and I’ll come to them with like, “I came up with this crazy thing. How do I explain this in a way that sounds reasonable? How do I fix it so it’s not as crazy?” Dr. Dave spent god knows how much time with me on this time travel story I was doing that got reprinted at Lightspeed recently, where I actually was sitting up late at night to do trigonometry to figure out how time travel was working in my world, and he was helping me to do the physics of it. He’s incredibly nice about that kind of stuff. For this, I wanted things like the wormhole machine that Laurence is working on in the second half of the book, and some of the other science stuff, to have at least some connection to real science so that it wasn’t going to be just crazy, handwavey, throwing stuff up in the air kind of stuff.
One line that jumped out at me was a character says, “We always suspected that gravity was so weak in our world because most of it was in another dimension.” I was curious if there was any real science behind that.
That was something that I came up with on my own, and I ran it past Dr. Dave, and he didn’t throw up, so I think it’s at least something that has a ring of truth to it. I’m always fascinated by the idea that there’s a lot that we don’t understand about gravity, and that it’s a relatively weak force in our universe. That’s something that I personally am really curious about, and my own attempts to explore that are feeble, but it’s something that I think was an interesting way to bring stuff together in the book.
A really big theme in this book is that humanity is just on the verge of destroying itself and drastic measures need to be taken, and the scientists and wizards in the book have different drastic measures that they think ought to be taken. I was just kind of curious, do you think we’re that close to destroying ourselves, and do you think that drastic measures need to be taken?
I worry about it. I worry about the damage that we’re doing to our own habitat on this planet, and about the kind of unsustainable system that we’ve built for ourselves. I think that anybody who pays attention to what’s going on in the world has to worry about that stuff. I also was very careful in the book to include voices that didn’t think that the world was ending. I think that, for my purposes in the book, it’s not so much that the book needs you to believe that the world is coming to an end, it’s that the book needs you to believe that these people think that the world is coming to an end, because that justifies the actions that they want to take. That was something that was really important to me, to hint at that, especially Milton Dearth, who’s the guy who really believes that we’re going to need a new planet soon. He’s kind of an eternal pessimist, and in an earlier draft of the book, I included a whole story about why he became so pessimistic about human nature and about the future of our species, but that ended up being cut purely for length reasons. But there is one character in the book who says, “It’s not the apocalypse. It’s just an adjustment in our standard of living.” And I thought that that was something that absolutely had to be in there because it’s not a unanimous viewpoint.
I think that right now, everybody has these fears of the apocalypse, because we see so many things that seem beyond our control. There’s all this talk about us being on the verge of the sixth mass extinction, and I think it’s important to engage with that and talk about that in pop culture and in culture generally. Annalee Newitz wrote this amazing book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, about how we’ll survive the next mass extinction, to address that, and to have an optimistic viewpoint on what we’re going to do if the apocalypse does happen.
I actually interviewed Annalee about Scatter, Adapt, and Remember when it came out.
People can go dig through the archives and find that if they want to know more. You had a blog post that I thought was really interesting and was relevant to this book. It’s titled “Can you be a die-hard rationalist but also totally superstitious? (Asking for a friend).”
Right, that was on my Tumblr. I’m very, very, very superstitious, and I engage in a lot of magical thinking, and I kind of know that that’s nonsense or whatever, but I also kind of buy into it, and I have a weird relationship to reality, I guess. Partly because reality always seems very weird to me as a person living through it. It never feels entirely predictable or reasonable. I kind of indulge in a little bit of superstition and magical viewpoints in my own life because it’s a way of dealing with the unreality of life.
What are some ways in which you engage in magical thinking?
I pick up pennies on the sidewalk. I don’t walk under ladders. I hug trees. I used to just knock on wood, but now I actually will just hug a tree for luck or to feel grounded or whatever. Actually, I think hugging trees is probably good in general. Trees are our friends. It’s good to say hi to them.
Would you say that Laurence and Patricia are kind of those two aspects of your personality and you identify equally with both of them?
I definitely identify equally with both of them, and I think they definitely represent different aspects of my personality. I think that in some ways they have a lot in common, in addition to being different in a lot of ways. I think that they definitely represent . . . in terms of how they deal with other people and how they deal with the world, they represent different kinds of aspects of my sense of myself.
There’s this line I really wanted to ask you about, so there’s a part where the AI character says, “Society is a choice between freedom on someone else’s terms and slavery on yours.”
Right, that’s almost a nonsense statement in a way. But it’s also something that felt kind of meaningful to me because those are almost the same thing, but they’re slightly different views of how they’re constructive. It’s like, either way you have to compromise and buy into other people’s logic, or just be subject to external constraints.
A big theme in this book in general is living in society and dealing with other people and figuring out how to handle the rest of the human race and all of the crazy stuff that comes with that, and that comes up again and again throughout the book. It was almost as much as nature versus science or nature and science is a major theme in the book, dealing with society is sort of the other theme that kept coming back to me in various ways, and I feel like those two themes speak to each other in a way that I can’t articulate, but that felt important somehow. In fact, that AI winds up creating a new way for people to interact with each other, and that’s one of the ways that the book works itself out is through finding better social connections. I had this other book that I wrote, one of the other novels that never got published, where a one character says . . . they’ve just graduated from college, and they’re like, “Well, now I can do anything I want because it’s not like I can get expelled from the real world.” And the other character says, “Well, I think that’s what they call prison.” You can actually get expelled from the real world. It’s just that getting expelled from the real world means getting locked up.
Unfortunately, we’re pretty much out of time. Do you want to talk about other projects you’re working on? Or what else has been going on with you?
I’m super excited to start my book tour, and I’m working really hard on the next novel, which I’m at that stage now where I keep kind of clutching my head and saying, “Oh my god, what was I thinking? This is the worst idea that I’ve ever had.” Which probably means that I’m making progress, I hope. It’s completely different from All the Birds in the Sky. It’s a book set on another planet in the future, and at least currently it doesn’t have any humor in it at all, although that might change.
Is there anything going on with io9 that you want to talk about?
We just merged with Gizmodo, which is the site about science and technology, so now there’s kind of a bigger, more awesome entity that combines science, tech, futurism, and science fiction. That’s sort of like a larger, more awesome version of what Annalee and I were designing all those years ago.
So, like one of those Transformers where you combine them to build a bigger Transformer?
Yeah, it’s like Voltron.
It also says in your bio that “Six Months, Three Days” is in development at NBC. Is there anything you can say about that?
I can’t really say anything about that right now. I’m hoping that there might be some news at some point, but even though I write about pop culture in my day job, I still don’t fully understand the workings of Hollywood. A lot of stuff just kind of trundles through different pipelines and rolls around in endless loops and sometimes something emerges and sometimes nothing emerges, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
I thought that was just a terrific story, so I hope to see that sometime.
Oh cool, well, thank you.
I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Charlie Jane Anders, and this new book is called All the Birds in the Sky. Thank you so much for joining us.
Yay, thank you so much! It was my pleasure.
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