Nancy Kress is the author of more than twenty novels, including the Probability series and the Green Tree series. She’s best known for her novella “Beggars in Spain,” which she later expanded into a novel of the same name about children who are genetically engineered to never have to sleep. That story, along with twenty others, are included in her recent short story collection The Best of Nancy Kress.
This interview first appeared in July 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 about how your recent short story collection The Best of Nancy Kress came about.
I had been wanting to do a retrospective for a while, and I was delighted when Subterranean contacted me and said, “I think it is time to do a Best of Nancy Kress.” They do “the best of” for a number of authors, as you probably know, and they do an absolutely gorgeous job, so I was really, really pleased. I had a long talk with my editor, Yanni, and she said, “You can have 200,000 words.” So, I had to choose the stories that would go in there. The problem is, I tend to write novellas, which come very close to 40,000 words. Nearly all of my awards have been for novellas. But, if you put in five novellas, then there goes the whole book, so I had to leave some things out that I otherwise would have included. But the process of selection, although agonizing, was also a lot of fun.
What was it like going through all those old stories and trying to pick out the best ones?
It was strange. I don’t usually reread my stuff. Once I’m done with it, I’m moving on to the next project, and that absorbs all of my interest. When the copy-edited manuscripts show up, I actually resent it and think, “Oh lord, I’ve got to do this now.” But it feels like I’m pulling my attention away from whatever I’m writing. I don’t understand writers who can work on four or five or even six different projects at a time. To me, that would feel like adultery. I’m really committed to whatever I’m working on at a time.
Anyway, when I went through the stories, I wrote all of the names and word counts on little bits of yellow paper for all of the stories that I was interested in. And then I put them in piles. These are definites, these are maybes, these are nos. I was fooling around with the maybes when a huge gust of wind blew in the door and all of the little pieces of yellow paper end up on the floor. I thought, “This is possibly a sign on what I should include, but probably not.” So, I had to start all over again.
When you go back and look at these older stories, are they pretty much the way that you remember them or did you have a completely different perspective on any of them now?
My style has changed a lot. When I first started to write, I was not doing hard science fiction. I was doing a lot more contemporary fantasy, and a lot more very soft science fiction, and some outright fantasy, and my style was a lot more lyrical. I tended to use more figurative language. I tended to end things on a more ambiguous note. That doesn’t work really well with hard SF.
As I progressed through my career, my style got harder and more spare. I was surprised reading some of those early stories that I had been that lyrical once, so yes, that was a surprise, since I haven’t looked at them in decades. But there were many of them I still like. Many of them I don’t like at all. And many that I wish I could go back and rewrite and edit because I might do it a little differently now.
You mention that you got more into hard science fiction as you wrote, and in the note for your story “Trinity” you say that when you wrote that story you hadn’t yet discovered how much fun it is to build on actual science to create fiction. I was wondering, was there a particular moment where you discovered how much fun it is?
I don’t think so. I only know that it was after Beggars in Spain. Although, I did research sleep a little bit in order to write that, because it’s about people who are genetically engineered to never need sleep. I didn’t research it way down to the molecular level—I was content with a couple of broad generalities and a few theories. So, it was post-that.
I think it was somewhere in the late ’90s or early 2000s that science began to genuinely catch my imagination. Maybe it was the human genome project. That was gearing up at that time. Since then I’ve tried to educate myself as much as I can. I’m not scientifically trained, and that has been a drawback. I have to read, I have to research, I have to pester experts to help me. I have to do all of those things in order to make my stories as believable as I can.
Right, so if there are other writers listening to this who aren’t scientifically trained, do you have any advice for them for how to go about doing that sort of scientific research?
I subscribe to Science News and to MIT Tech Journal and a couple of others that have science in a popular form for the laymen. When something catches my imagination, then I go online, and I research in areas that I trust. For instance, the CDC site. Places that are not strange. Because as you probably now, the Internet has a lot of strange stuff on it.
I will research and research and make notes, copious notes, until I have the idea of how the science is going to fit with the plot, and then I can proceed from there. If there are things that I can’t find, and that I need to have, there are some microbiologists that I can email and they will help me. For instance, I needed to know for one story how a virus can become airborne. I emailed one of the microbiologists, and she very, very helpfully sent me a long email and the kinds of changes that have to happen in the envelope protein of a virus in order for it to go transmissible by contact to transmissible by air. That kind of thing. So, if you don’t have a bunch of microbiologists already—I collect them like butterflies—you need to research even more carefully on acceptable sites. Also, books, but the problem with books is that by the time they’re in print they tend to be outdated. Science is moving so fast.
That was your story “Evolution,” right?
Do you want to talk about that story?
That story was written in 1994, and I could see it coming, well, so could the whole scientific world, that we were running out of antibiotics that would work against microbes, pathogens that were mutating so fast. Bacteria can, under ideal circumstances, produce a new generation every twenty minutes. Obviously, we cannot do that, and right now it is getting to the point where it is becoming really scary, because there are not that very many new antibiotics in the research pipeline. The reason is that they are not profitable. They are not as profitable as other kinds of drugs like, for instance, Viagra and all of its spinoffs. So, pharmaceuticals are not invested as much in antibiotic research.
Most cases of infection from drug resistant staphylococcus aureus are contracted in hospitals. And we are getting to a point where many people don’t want to go to the hospital, especially for something that isn’t major, because the chances of picking up a pathogen there, a hospital-born pathogen, can sometimes be greater than the chances of actually getting help if it’s not for anything major. So, that’s what my story “Evolution” is centered on. That was 1994 and twenty years ago, and it is, alas, starting to become more and more true.
You mentioned that you got interested really in the hard science stuff from the human genome project, and this book has a double-helix on the cover. Biology is really a focus of your writing. What interests you so much about biology, and particularly the genetic engineering of humans, as a theme that shows up again and again?
Well, somebody said, and I can’t remember who, that there are three very small things that are shaping science and have been shaping science for the last hundred years. In physics it’s the atom and its subdivisions. In information technology, it’s the byte, and all of what that has led to in terms of computers and eventually AI. In biology, it is the gene.
Of those three, the gene is the one that really interests me. Physics seems very esoteric, which of course it is. I just read the very popular book Spooky Action at a Distance about quantum entanglement, and I have to say that if I understood a quarter of it, that was a lot. Also, computers completely baffle me, as you saw the trouble we had just getting Skype to work. I’m not good at that. But, biology is something that not only I can follow, but that really, really interests me because this is a chance for us to actually direct our own evolution and the evolution of other things on the planet, and I really don’t understand why anybody isn’t interested in this.
When I talk to young people, to colleges, and even occasionally high schools, I say, “Your generation is the one that is going to have to make these decisions about genetic engineering. What are we going to engineer? How much are we going to engineer? Who is going to control it if it can be controlled, which I’m not sure is true. With what consequences?” These are going to be political issues. They already are, but they’re going to be really major issues, and it’s important that the right information get out there, which alas, does not always happen.
Speaking of that, you mentioned your novel Beggars in Spain, which is one of your best known works. Do you want to say more about that story?
Beggars in Spain came about partly out of sheer jealousy. I need eight hours of sleep. Preferably eight and a half every night, or I get very cranky, and my mind doesn’t work right. I know people who manage to get by with four or five hours of sleep every night and function just fine, and I am enormously jealous. They get more life than I do. Jealousy was one of the things that fed into writing that story.
The other thing was a workshop I had attended for professionals. We were all critiquing each other’s manuscripts, and Bruce Sterling made a comment about one of mine, which was exactly true. He said, “I don’t believe your future society. I don’t believe it takes place on an alien planet. I don’t know who controls the resources. I don’t know who controls the power. I don’t know who is behind all of this. You haven’t shown me the underpinnings of the money and the power. You haven’t followed the money.” So, I went home from this workshop, and I licked my wounds for a couple of weeks, and then I thought, “Damn it. He’s right.” And I started to think about money and power.
The two things on money and power that shaped Beggars in Spain are Ursula le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, in which power is shared. It’s an anarchist society. Money does not exist because private property does not exist. That’s at one end. The other end is Ayn Rand, whom I think was a dreadful writer, and whose ideas I don’t share, but her basic philosophy was that power and money belong to whoever, basically, can get them. Power should accrue to money and money should accrue to hard work and inventiveness, which is not always the case. And in her world, it does. Her world is everybody out for themselves. Ursula le Guin’s world is a total sharing, and that will eliminate violence. I didn’t believe either one of them.
So, the other thing that fed into Beggars in Spain was the question, what do I believe about money and power? What would an ideal society look like that is trying to deal with those issues along with genetic engineering? This seemed to be a large enough subject that it ended up a trilogy.
In the story you have this character, Kenzo Yagai, who has this influential philosophy. Could you talk a little bit about that philosophy?
That’s pure objectivism. Kenzo Yagai’s philosophy is pretty much pure Ayn Rand. I wanted to show that that doesn’t always work. It leaves too many people out. Ayn Rand was fine with that. Leave out everybody who doesn’t meet her criteria. I’m not fine with that. So, I wanted to talk about the people who are not naturally gifted. Who are not naturally in a position where they can create and become important titans of business. I wanted to talk about those people who are at the lower end of the franchise scale, which is Alice in Beggars in Spain. And the relationship between the two sisters, Leisha and Alice, is what drives the novella and part of what drives the novel.
Right, so you have these two sisters, one of whom, Alice, is not enhanced in any way, and the other sister, Leisha, who is genetically engineered to not need to sleep and so can accomplish a lot more than Alice can.
She’s also favored by her very wealthy father, which has a lot to do with it, as poor Alice is not.
You mentioned earlier that you thought the science in this was not as researched as you would do later, but I thought the science seemed pretty in-depth. I was just wondering how much artistic license you had taken with this idea that sleep is not really biologically necessary?
At the time I wrote it in 1994, there were theories that said that—although there were other theories, of course, that said the opposite. And I picked the theories I liked. In the twenty years since then, we have come to show that a lot more goes on during sleep than we thought. I don’t think you really could eliminate it. For one thing, we have found out that during sleep, certain toxins are flushed out of the brain, and they go down the Vagus nerve, all the way down, which connects to the gut, and eventually get flushed out of the body. We didn’t know that was going on in 1994. We did know that if you’re deprived of REM sleep, psychosis can set in. I sort of covered that in the book, but not at a molecular level. If I were writing that novel now, I think it would be a much different book. Although it would have the same plot spine, the details would be much different. But I’m not writing it now. I wrote it in 1992.
You mentioned that this conversation with Bruce Sterling kind of kicked off an important epiphany for you with this story, but at that point I think you’d been working on it for thirteen years or so, right?
I had not worked on the central economic question of Beggars in Spain, which is “what do the haves owe the have-nots?” That’s the question that Tony asks Leisha over and over, and that she’s trying to grapple with and come up with a philosophy of why the haves owe the have-nots things.
But the question of genetic engineering to not need to sleep, yes I had been working on that for thirteen years. The first story I wrote was completely dreadful, and it was rejected by everybody. Robert Silverberg rejected it twice because I hadn’t realized that he had changed editorial positions, and I sent him the manuscript at his new position, and he wrote back, “I didn’t like this the first time, and I still don’t like it.” Then I put that away, and I tried again several years later, and that story was so bad that I never even sent it out because even I could see it wasn’t working. But the idea was still there. It had been born of my jealousy of long sleepers, so that was still in there. I was still mulling it over, and eventually, thanks to Bruce’s comment, the right format to present it came to me. I wrote the novella in three weeks.
Wow, it’s just so striking to me that it’s such a successful story but it took so long to take its final form and to find success and that you stuck with it over all those years.
I don’t know if stuck with it is the right term because that implies that I was working on it continuously, which I certainly was not. I was kind of thinking about it way in the back of my mind, but writing many other books and many other stories that while I was writing them had my full commitment.
I just think for writers it’s encouraging to hear that just because a story is not working now doesn’t mean that you can’t come back to it in ten years and figure out what’s wrong with it.
Oh, that’s completely true. Yes.
One story I wanted to ask you about dealing with science fiction writers very directly is the story “Casey’s Empire.” Could you say a little bit about that?
“Casey’s Empire” was one of my early stories, and it too was written out of frustration. Now that I think about it, frustration is driving an awful lot of my stories. The frustration here was that I had begun to sell stories, but not all of them. I could not figure out why some of them were going and some of them were not. So “Casey’s Empire” is about a would-be science fiction writer who is trying very hard to figure out what makes stories work and what doesn’t make stories work while also trying to eke out a living and get a graduate degree in English. All of which I was trying to do at the same time. In some ways, it’s a personal story, although the things that happen to Casey never happened to me.
The other impetus for writing that was the game that Casey played as a child was one I actually used to play with friends: If a spaceship suddenly landed right in the back pasture, would you get on it and take a chance that it would never come back, or kill you, or would you just run away shrieking and go find the police? Some of us said we’d get on, and some of us said we wouldn’t. That game had stayed with me all of my life.
I think that writers use everything. They don’t always use it in as direct a form as I just described, but they use it. It drops into that deep well of unconscious, and it sort of crossbreeds with everything else that’s down there, and what is down there is everything you’ve ever experienced, everything you’ve ever read, everything you’ve ever seen on TV, everything you’ve ever talked to other people about, and it all ferments down there and comes out as something different.
I think that’s so interesting that you played that same game as a child, because the Casey character is somebody who is obsessed with science fiction from their earliest childhood and pursues it non-stop throughout his whole life. Is that what your trajectory was, or did you ever go away from that, or come back to it?
No, my trajectory was much different. To begin with, I didn’t even discover science fiction until I was fourteen. I grew up in the 1950s, so the reason for this could not exist today: The library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction was shelved in the boys’ section. All of the fantasy shelved in the girls’ section. And being very much a goody-goody who obeyed all of the rules, I never went over to the boys’ section. So I read a lot of fantasy. I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and green book and blue book and plaid book of fairy tales. All of them. But I never saw any science fiction.
When I was fourteen, I had my first boyfriend, and I would go to his house after school. He was studying to be a concert pianist. He would practice on the piano, and I would hang adoringly over the piano. Well, I’m tone deaf. I can hang adoringly for maybe ten minutes. Then I would edge away to the bookshelves that were in the room, and I’d pull his father’s books off them, and among them was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I started reading it. I’d never seen any science fiction before, and I was hooked. I was in love. And not with the pianist.
Did you know then that you wanted to be a writer, or did that come later?
No, I became a fourth-grade teacher, and that’s what I was. I didn’t start writing until I was nearly thirty. I was pregnant with my second child, at home, way out in the country. No car. Very few neighbors. I was going nuts. I started writing while the baby was napping to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street. I didn’t take it seriously for a very long time.
But after a year, a story sold. After another year, another story sold. After a third year, another story sold. And then it began to pick up pace, and I got genuinely involved with it because by this time I was reading a lot of science fiction. But, you have to understand, I grew up in a very conservative, Italian-American family in the ’50s. Nobody ever thought a girl should be a writer or anything else. In fact, I thought all writers were dead when I was a kid. The writers who I was reading like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey, they were all dead. I honestly, as a little girl, did not realize that more writing was being produced. I thought it was sort of like oil: a finite commodity.
In one of the collection’s notes, you say that when you were first nominated for the Nebula Award you went to the convention, and it was like being in Heaven. That you just couldn’t believe how exciting that was.
It was! I had sold three stories before I realized that SFWA existed, that conventions existed, that fandom existed, that there was an entire universe out there that had to do with science fiction. I had just been reading it from the library and buying the magazines from the news stand and writing it in complete isolation. I had no idea. And then somebody gave me a copy of Locus, which used to do convention listings, but they don’t anymore, alas. And I went to one, and I was completely and totally hooked.
When in there did you do the master’s degree in English?
In my late twenties. I went back to school after I had my two small children, and I got a master’s degree in English and began teaching at the college level. Not tenure track, but as an adjunct, and then filling in for people who were going on sabbatical for six months or a year.
In the story “Casey’s Empire,” he’s kind of trying to pursue this career in academia, and all the academics that he encounters are so unsympathetic to science fiction that they can’t even bring themselves to say the words “science fiction.” It’s kind of funny.
That was much more the case then than it is now. I remember going to an academic conference at the college, and I was seated next to an eminent scholar, and I asked how literature courses were structured at his university, and he was very enthusiastic. He said, “We’re trying to repackage courses so that instead of being historical overviews, they are instead organized around a theme.” He said he was teaching a very successful course on the city in fiction, and he was looking at Dickens and a couple of other books that are centered in major cities, and how those affected the fiction, which was apparently a great success with the students. I said, “Oh, that’s really an interesting idea. Do you use any science fiction about future cities?” He said to me, “Oh, no, no, we try to use real books.” But I think that has changed a lot.
You say in your note that you think it’s kind of trendy now to be into science fiction in academia.
Yes, and there are a lot of PhDs who are tired of writing about Keats and looking for new figures to be able to write about that isn’t much, much, much worn territory.
Getting back to the science, one of the stories in the new collection is called “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” and it has this very, very highly-developed science fictional world-building setting. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I don’t really know where that came from. The people—the aliens—who live on that planet have a shared reality, a consensus reality that depends a little bit on telepathy and a little bit on interpreting pheromones and body language. It’s a shared, consensual reality. We all have a shared, consensual reality, but theirs is very highly developed—to the point where it’s painful for them to not share the same point of view as everybody else, and this makes crime very rare. If you share what the person you’re about to thump on the head is feeling, you’re less likely to thump them on the head. That’s the plan anyway. I wanted to explore that concept.
That story was one of the “gift” stories. There are stories that come very easily, and I call those “gift” stories. There are other stories that involve a certain amount of research and plotting. Those are the vast majority of stories, and there’s also stories I call “shitting rocks” stories where you have to push and push and push to get the damn thing out.
“The Flowers of Aulit Prison” was kind of a gift story, and again the science there is not that well-developed. It was a story from mid-career. It does talk about schizophrenia, and it does talk a little bit about how the brain functions, but nothing like I would do later on. Nothing like I would go down to the molecular level and deal with as I do in “Yesterday’s Kin” or a book like Stinger, which was actually a thriller based on biotechnology. For those books, I really, really wanted to get it right. For “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” I was more interested in simply using science as a framework to say what I wanted to say about the perception of reality.
I seem to remember that John W. Campbell had this challenge for writers where he would say, “Give me an alien that thinks as well as a human being but not like a human being.” It seems like that’s what you were really accomplishing in this story.
That’s what I was trying for, yes.
Then in your note for “The Kindness of Strangers,” you say that one of the functions of science fiction is to examine ideas that the mind recoils from.
Yes, there are two ideas in there that the mind recoils from. In that story, aliens, very advanced from us, make a brief trip to earth, and then annihilate ninety percent of the population. They take out the largest cities, starting with the largest city on Earth, Karachi, and move down in population. From their point of view it’s a benevolent action. There are too many of us. We are going to ruin the planet in another couple of generations, and the whole race will not survive, and in their very pragmatic view, it’s better to eliminate most of us than to let all of us go down the tubes.
Obviously, this is not a point of view humans share. It’s a distasteful idea. The aliens consider it equivalent to culling deer herds through hunting so that all of them don’t starve over winter, which is also an idea that a lot of humans recoil from. I wanted to put that out there, not because I approve of that, but just because it’s an idea to contemplate.
The other distasteful idea has to do with my character, Jenny, who discovers that she has been completely mistaken in some important actions she’s taken, and the only thing that can cut through her resulting despair is the incredible heartening power of anger and hatred. Again, that’s a distasteful idea, but it’s a true one. I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself trembling on the verge of depression, and then gotten angry, and that has reenergized you. Anger has that ability. That’s one reason we get some of the demagogues in the world that we get. Anger can be preferable to despair on an individual level. It is not, however, very good on a societal level.
I totally agree with you that it’s important science fiction deals with ideas that the mind recoils from. I’ve certainly noticed this among people who I’ve met who don’t read any science fiction, that there’s kind of this very constrained box that they can consider possibilities within, and if you bring up anything really outside what they are familiar with, they just can’t even logically process it, they just reject it out of hand. I think it’s much better to be able to evaluate ideas based on their merits rather than based on their level of comfort and familiarity.
I’m sorry to say that I think the box is constraining science fiction more than it used to. There are attacks from the right on anything that seems to threaten what we think of as individual freedom, and there are attacks from the left on anything that threatens identity politics. I don’t want to go into this too much, but I think a lot of science fiction writers are feeling much more constrained than they used to about what they can write.
I think that’s certainly true. People have become more afraid to offend other people, and that has its upsides and its downsides, but one of the downsides is there’s a certain amount of self-censoring and just playing it safe going on.
I said on a panel that as an artist—if I can use that title—I reserve the right to try to represent reality as I see it. That means that any particular group, all groups of people have good apples and bad apples. I do not feel, as an artist, that I only have to represent disenfranchised groups in positive lights. Every individual is not a hero. You would not believe how crucified I got online for that statement. Actually, maybe you would believe it.
It’s very difficult. I’ve seen that you write about families a lot, and often portray them in very strained and difficult ways. You have to get into the messiness of human relationships if you’re writing fiction because otherwise, what’s the point?
Yes, I believe that’s true. I write about families a lot because so often they are missing from science fiction. There are entire universes where you can’t imagine children existing, and you have no idea how they’re reproducing. You look at something like William Gibson’s brilliant novel Neuromancer, and it’s impossible to imagine in his world that anybody is trying to get the kids off to school in the morning, or squeeze the orange juice, or get the rent paid, or mow the lawn. It’s just not a universe that lends itself to that kind of normalcy. I think it’s important because all people come from some sort of a family, and most of them will eventually end up forming some sort of a family, but to read a lot of science fiction, you would have no idea of that.
The reason I write about strained family relationships is not because that’s been my experience. My family is actually very close. More because fiction depends on conflict. I teach writing a lot. I just finished teaching Taos Toolbox, which is a two-week intensive that Walter Jon Williams and I teach in Taos, New Mexico every year for aspiring science fiction writers. When I teach, I tell my students fiction is about stuff that gets screwed up. Nobody wants to read a 400-page novel where everything goes well. You want your life to be like that, but you don’t want to read about it. Fiction is about stuff that gets screwed up, and that includes relationships, so yes, I write about the strains in family relationships because that’s where the story is.
I also wanted to ask you about the way that you portray religion in your stories because there are about five stories in this book that deal very explicitly with religious themes. I can name them, but do you want to just say generally what you think about that?
I’m surprised there were five. I know “Trinity” does.
I’ll list the ones that I have here. I have: “Unto the Daughters”—the Adam and Eve story. “Grant Us this Day” where there’s god as a struggling artist. “My Mother Dancing” where the humans have this religion that they’re the only life in the universe. And “By Fools Like Me” where it’s set in the post-apocalyptic future where reading a book is against their religion.
Oh, you’re right. None of those are religions in a traditional sense. In other words, I’m not writing about Catholicism, or Hinduism, or Mormonism, or anything like that. They’re invented religions that grow out of existing religions, either for fantasy purposes or because in the future I think that’s where it might go. “By Fools like Me,” for instance, grows out of Christianity, sort of.
I really believe the religious impulse is under-explored in science fiction. People have always, always, in every society, wanted there to be more than what we can see and experience. Some of the formulations of more have been bizarre, to say the least, and none of them, of course, are proven because by its very nature, religion does not lend itself to the replicable and verifiable results that science does. But I think that the impulse is very much a part of the human make-up, and if you’re going to explore what it means to be human, that’s part of what needs to be explored. A lot of space opera just kind of leaves this out, and that always surprises me because even if you’re a stone-cold atheist, you have a religious impulse that you are railing against. There’s a certain underlying of minor key despair in all atheisms, and I have met a lot of atheists who have said, “I wish I could believe, but I can’t.” They’re going with a more rational point of view, but the longing is still there. I put religion in my stories because I think that longing is universal, even if you can’t manage to fulfill it.
You mentioned the story “Trinity” which is very much about what if you could design some sort of scientific experiment that would confirm the existence of some sort of invisible entity or power?
If you could design such an experiment, all the people who belong to religions that the experiment did not turn up an exact copy of would disown it. All of the atheists would disown it because they would say, “It’s not replicable.” Even if it were, there’s some kind of trick involved, or there’s some kind of hallucination going on in the mind that has nothing to do with actual reality. You would have a very small percentage of people who would actually embrace it, which again is what is going on in that story.
The main character is a scientifically-minded person who has a very strong emotional opposition to believing the results of this experiment if they disagree with what she already believes.
Right. She also has, of course, a personal stake in disbelieving it. In “My Mother Dancing,” also, the humans who come back to the planet have a very strong stake in disbelieving what they have found, or in at least in denying it, which they do.
Right, so those stories are interesting mirrors of each other because it’s the same phenomenon of not wanting to change your mind from two different angles.
Right, which is a great human failing. Once you’ve invested in something, in anything, any idea, it can be traumatic to change your mind, and it can be unsettling to other ideas that you have in your head because they’re all linked together. I think that’s why a major conversion, whether it’s religious, political, social, always shakes a person all the way down to their foundation.
I’m definitely a stone-cold atheist, but I feel like I’m in the small number of people you mentioned who would be open-minded if there was some sort of scientific experiment that said I could go to Heaven by doing X, Y, or Z. I would be very happy to find that out, and I think I would make a good monk. I just honestly don’t think there’s any good reason to believe any of that stuff.
The problem with religion is I believe the impulse means something, but the human mind immediately tries to codify everything, and so the religious impulse has been codified into a myriad of organized religions, most of which have ridiculous beliefs. So, when one rejects organized religion, one is rejecting the completely irrational, but one is also throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m wondering if we have not got the impulse there for some reason that we have not yet discovered. I don’t know. I’m a leave-the-door-open agnostic, but not for an organized religion because, again, I think we’ve codified it to the point where it becomes insanely complicated and has very little to do with what actually might be out there. Physics uncovers more and more strangenesses in the universe. As J.S. Haldane said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.” I don’t know what is out there. I don’t know substrates lie beneath what we think we’ve discovered. But I’m leaving the door open that there’s something that would account for this universal religious impulse in us. I’m just leaving the door open. I’m not believing, but I’m leaving the door open.
Talk about your story “Unto the Daughters” because science fiction is classically thought of as being fairly atheistic in its approach, but then you have this phenomenon of the Adam and Eve story being a sort of cliché that pops up over and over again in science fiction.
“Unto the Daughters” is a deliberately feminist retelling of the Adam and Eve myth. I wanted to write that from an entirely different perspective, and there are so many Adam and Eve stories out there that it’s almost impossible to do. But I wanted to do it from the viewpoint of the snake, and I wanted to do it in a feminist way, and that’s how that story came about. It’s obviously not intended to be taken seriously. It’s an alternate mythology.
It’s very interesting alternate mythology because it presupposes that the snake is female and that the snake has a very long view of history in mind.
Yes, and I wrote it partly because I loved the snake’s voice once I started it. That’s important to me. When I start a story, I usually plunge right into the first couple of paragraphs, as soon as the idea and character come to me together. That gives me the voice. That’s what helps, for me, to shape the rest of the story. As soon as I had the first couple paragraphs of that snake’s voice, I wanted to write that story.
Speaking of female characters, you mentioned that you write about families a lot, but most of the stories in this book, I think, are written from a female point of view and involve mother-daughter relationships. Sister relationships are very important. What kind of reactions do you get from readers to the fact that you write all these great women’s relationships?
Not much. Because my stories, except for “Unto the Daughters” are seldom overtly feminist. They don’t deal with patriarchy. They don’t deal with lack of power because of being a woman. Sally Gourley in “Out of All Them Bright Stars” is powerless because of her class, not her gender. I tend to deal more with that, so feminists who award for the Tiptree and those kinds of things tend pretty much to ignore me. I put females in central roles, but they are often conflicted females. They are often struggling with interpersonal relationships, or with the world around them. They are not kickass heroines. In fact, I don’t have kickass heroes either. But because of that, because I neither write overtly, as Alice Sheldon, for instance, did so brilliantly, about issues with the patriarchy, and because my characters are not, again, kickass heroines, I tend to be pretty much ignored. Also, I think I have about one-third male protagonists, especially in some of the earlier fiction. So, I would not classify myself as a hard feminist writer even though I do have a lot of women in my stories. I know women better than I know men, obviously.
Does it ever cross your mind to write a hard feminist story or a kickass heroine, or is that just not something that appeals to you?
No, it doesn’t. I am a feminist, very much, but not a radical feminist. I have a father, two brothers, two sons, and a husband, and a lot of male friends, all of whom I love. I cannot see the patriarchy as having every single member of it an oppressor. That just hasn’t been my experience.
You mentioned that because you write the kind of fiction that you do that you don’t get the focus from the Tiptree awards and that kind of thing. In your note for your story “People Like Us” you say that science fiction too has its social classes. I was wondering if you could expand what you meant by that.
I think class is a far more interesting subject for me to write about than gender. I don’t mean it’s inherently more interesting, I just mean it’s more interesting to me. I think we do have social classes within science fiction, but I think they’re very subtle. Many of the usual ones are erased. People who don’t have a lot of money, who don’t come from what we would call in this country a distinguished birth or whatever, none of that matters in fandom, or among writers. Among writers, what matter is talent and sales. They’re not always the same thing, but both matter. I think what matters among fans is their love of science fiction, that’s what ties them together. Or science fiction offshoots like cosplay and media and those kinds of things. I used to write for Xerox Corporation, and all of the classes that prevail in the corporate world don’t necessarily prevail in the science fiction world. Different ones do. We have stars. We have people who are aspiring to be up there with stars. Critics may favor different writers than publishers do because sometimes very good writers don’t make a lot of money. Sometimes they do. I think it’s a subtle and constantly shifting class system.
When you’re talking about science fiction having social classes, the first thing that popped into my head was hard science fiction being elevated over soft science fiction.
I’m not sure that’s true. I think the audience for hard science fiction is not that large. The audience for fantasy is obviously enormous, and the audience for accessible, if not hard science fiction, say “high viscosity” science fiction, is also large. Then the audience for space opera is large because it’s adventure. But for hard SF, the kind that actually carefully extrapolates from science, and includes a lot of science: It’s a rare book that really, really breaks through and does that. One example that did is The Martian, but I’m not sure it would have achieved quite so much attention if it hadn’t been for the movie. Incidentally, I liked both the book and the movie very much, but for different reasons. I wish the movie had more science, but I guess it’s hard to put equations in there as the book had. In the book, there is more relentless perkiness from the hero, and because Matt Damon is a good actor, he was able to give more emotional shading to it in the movie, so I liked both of them, but for different reasons.
You said in your note to “Trinity” that you mentioned that you really were so excited to go to the Nebula Awards banquet the first time, and then you say that since then your view of SF has gotten a little battered. I was curious about what you meant?
I think maybe it’s me that’s gotten a little battered. When you’re young, everything is new and tremendously exciting. I had been reading science fiction for sixteen years before I went to my first convention, and I had ideas in my head of how these writers were going to look and sound and be. It was a shock to me, as I went to panels, and as I met people at parties, to discover that the person often bears very little resemblance to the work. There were writers whose work I really loved who turned out to be sort of disagreeable in person. I’m not naming names. There were other writers whose work I thought was okay whom I thought were absolutely wonderful as people: interesting, exciting, and kind. It was kind of a shock to my naiveté to discover that.
Also, of course, as the years go on, and the decades go on, anything becomes less novel and less new. Ellen Datlow—who was my guide for a lot of this because she was publishing me regularly in Omni, and I was clearly so wet behind the ears—we’d walk into a bar, we’d sit down, and within minutes Gardner Dozois, Roger Zelazny, and everybody else would have gravitated to Ellen, and she would introduce me. I mean, to say that I was star-struck is to put it mildly. Of course, star-struckness wears off because you discover that the stars are just people. Some of them are wonderful people, but they’re just people. I guess I was a little old at thirty to be discovering this, but I had led a very sheltered life.
No, I had exactly the same experience. I just loved science fiction so much that I assumed I would love anyone who also loved science fiction. I love a lot of them, but I have discovered that I don’t love all of them.
Yes, that’s what happens. Also, of course, when you’ve been to four million panels, and you’ve discovered that most of them end up saying the same thing. Picking up a topic, carrying it in circles for an hour, and setting it down again, including the panels I’m on, that begins to pall a little bit too.
I still enjoy conventions. I enjoy seeing people, I enjoy the parties, I enjoy the signings, I enjoy meeting fans, and I even like doing panels, but it doesn’t have the same shiny, newness that it did once. That’s all I meant by that note.
I heard you talking one time about how when you first started going to conventions that Bruce Sterling was on top of tables rousing people to write cyberpunk and stuff like that, and you weren’t sure that same sort of urgency was present at conventions.
You know, it might be present among the younger generation. I don’t know. I would like to get more acquainted with some of the writers that are coming up right now, and I’ve met some of them. Ken Liu, I think is extremely good. Sarah Pinsker. Rachel Swirsky. But I don’t know them well in the way that I know the cohorts who entered science fiction at the same time I did. And because those people are all old friends, I want to see them at conventions. I only get to see Connie Willis a couple of times a year. So that’s where I want to spend my time, and I don’t get to meet a lot of the younger ones as much. Maybe they are having the same kind of urgent discussions about what science fiction should be and where it should go. I’m just not quite as much a part of it as I once was.
In the note for your story “Endgame,” you say that too much of any good thing can be bad, maybe even writing. I was wondering how do you know you’ve gotten to the point where the writing has gotten to be too much?
“Endgame” is about artificially, through drugs, concentrating the powers of concentration. It’s about what the mind is capable of in a given subject, and in the story it’s chess. I’m a chess player. I’m a bad chess player. I play a lot, and I play badly. If I concentrated more, I could probably improve, if I paid attention to it. I don’t. That’s where that story originated.
Any one power of the mind can take over and wreck the balance from the others. We talked earlier about, for instance, the religious impulse: it can take over the mind where you see everything through only the religious impulse, and that skewers your view of reality because there are lots of other things going on in the world. It can be true in a political lens. It can be true of xenophobia. It can be true, as in my story, of the powers of concentration. It can be true of the powers of anger, which might be heartening, but if that takes over your mind completely, you’re really in trouble.
When writing takes over completely, you lost touch with the world outside of writing, and that’s the raw material for it. When you devote your time to writing, and writing, and writing, and doing nothing else, I think you do lose touch with what is going on in the human and non-human world out there—and that has to be your raw material.
You can also labor over a story past the point where you can no longer improve it, and you have got to send it out already. I occasionally get students like that. They don’t want to send something out. I don’t understand why, since to me, this seems to be the whole point, which is sharing what you’ve written with other people. But, they say, “What if it’s rejected?” Well, what if it is? That’s part of the game.
A writer has to have certain qualities. They have to be able to spend a lot of time alone; in fact, they have to prefer it. They have to have an imagination, obviously. They have to be open to improving their craft and not be close-minded saying, “Well, this is perfect, and I’m not doing anything about it. I’m not changing it in any way.” They also have to be resilient. This is not a career for the faint-hearted. There will be rejections. There will be misunderstood stories. There will be bad reviews. There will be, at times, slumping sales. There will be financial insecurity because nobody provides writers with pensions, and unless you really scramble, not with health insurance either. And nobody provides a steady income until you become reasonably successful. You have to be able to be a resilient person. And I do see students who simply cannot do that.
I’m actually teaching right now at a science fiction writing workshop for young writers, and you’ll have students say, “Oh, but what if I send in my story and I get a mean rejection?” And the analogy I always use is wanting to be a writer and not wanting to get rejected is like wanting to be a boxer and not wanting to get punched.
I’m going to borrow that when I teach. That’s perfect. Thank you.
It’s like, no matter how good of a boxer you are, you’re going to get punched a lot every day.
That’s right. We’re literary boxers. We’re out there punching away at the universe, and we’re also doing the Muhammad Ali thing, “Look at me. I’m the greatest.”
Unfortunately, Nancy, we’re all out of time. What are you punching away at now? Do you have any projects you want to tell people about?
Yes, The Economist, the magazine, published a volume last year called “MegaChange” of essays on what the world might look like in the future, and it was successful, so they’re following it up with another volume called “MegaTech.” This time, instead of essays by experts, they decided they wanted to include some science fiction stories that might graphically illustrate changes in science in the year 2050. I’m working on a story for that project, which I’m very excited about and pleased to have been included.
Everyone definitely check that out when it comes out.
Thank you, David. I have to say I enjoyed this. Sometimes I do podcasts with people who haven’t actually read my work, and you obviously have, so that was a lovely thing.
I think it’s really important, if you’re going to interview an author, to actually read the book you’re talking about. Again, it’s called The Best of Nancy Kress, from Subterranean Press. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, David.
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