Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a best selling, award-winning screenwriter and novelist from Los Angeles. He has written over twenty novels and worked on shows such as The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1, and Baywatch. His true love is teaching balance and enhancing human performance in all forms: emotional, professional, and physical. He is a life coach, Circular Strength Training coach, and certified hypnotist, as well as a trained yoga instructor, Tai Chi instructor, and fourth-degree black belt. His new novel, Twelve Days is due out June 2017 from Tor Books.

You wrote Twelve Days thirty years later as a sequel to The Kundalini Equation. What changed for you during those years in terms of the concept and your approach to the subject matter, in particular the mystical/martial arts practices?

The most important thing is that The Kundalini Equation was speculation based upon what I’d read, or heard in lectures. But apparently I’d made some pretty interesting extrapolations, and people with genuine knowledge began to pay attention to me, and offered entrance to some fascinating circles. I extensively studied Pancultural Shamanism, and apprenticed to a Native American medicine man, as well as intensified my studies of martial arts. Over the thirty intervening years, the things I learned there enabled me to sort through a vast amount of information on the human body-mind.

There are concepts that cannot be put into words. Things that cannot be taught, although they can be learned. So a good teacher will create a situation in which you have a great chance to experience something, and then if you do, they can rap you on the head and say, “That!” The same kind of “ah-hah” moments can happen when you are multidisciplinary. I had this experience studying martial arts, and the same experience in meditation, and the same experience entering a writing flow state, and the same experience studying sexual magic (for instance). This suggested that a specific term used in an esoteric yoga text was referring to the same phenomena, and that realization was like a Rosetta Stone opening the door to understanding things that can’t be put into words. There are no words. But there are experiences that point the way toward truth. Those truths then provide light for still other things. At some point I hit a threshold and started glimpsing the entire construct: how all these body-mind disciplines connect, why they work, the ways that yoga, martial arts, meditation, prayer, flow state, peak performance, and all these things are all parts of the same reality.

In other words . . . writing The Kundalini Equation put me on the path to actually experiencing it. The path is real, and all these different disciplines have elements of it, different paths up the same mountain. The book was a fantasy, but I’d intuited something important.

Twelve Days features an altogether different set of characters, while giving a cameo to Adam Ludlum, the original protagonist from The Kundalini Equation. What did you want to explore with the new protagonists—journalist Olympia Dorsey, her children Hannibal and Nicki, and her neighbor and love interest Terry Nicholas—that you hadn’t explored with Adam?

Adam was seriously out of balance, and had a tiny piece of the puzzle. I wanted to ask what would happen if someone had more of the answers, and wasn’t starting from such a damaged place.

[Editor’s note: Steven Barnes would like to warn readers that the next three questions may contain information about the plot of Twelve Days that some might consider a spoiler.]

The driving force of the novel is the mystery surrounding the Reaping, the doomsday scenario orchestrated to kill off most of the world’s population by Christmas. In the middle of this, two characters come into conflict because of their opposing motives for self-actualization through harnessing mystical powers. Army veteran Terry Nicholas uses his powers to protect Olympia and her family. Guru Madame Gupta, inversely, puts hers to destructive and self-serving purposes. Why did you want to explore this idea? [Possible spoiler.]

Well, a protagonist needs an antagonist to push against. Allowing their worldviews to collide provides conflict and automatically suggests scenes. Curiously, though, I see Olympia as the core protagonist: She sits at the center of the circle. Everyone connects to her.

I find Madame Gupta intriguing: Although she turns out to be the antagonist, she’s a wounded mentor figure with a heartbreaking backstory. She’s a compelling shape-shifting figure, too, adopting a variety of guises to get what she wants. Tell us a little about how you came up with her character. [Possible spoiler.]

She started as a stick figure, as an archetype. I needed to ask a question: How are these books connected? Ah . . . through Adam’s notebooks. Who could have come into contact with them? If it were some large project, lots of people. That wasn’t intimate enough. But how do I limit it? So I created two different characters: the woman she would become, with power and authority, and then the woman she had been, with just enough information to understand things that even seasoned analysts would not, but enough damage that the power running through her would corrupt her, as a crimp in wiring can create a burn-out. But there was more.

I met a woman who was an extraordinary martial artist name Germon “Mama G” Miller-Bey. African martial arts. Never met anyone quite like her. She was kind enough to share her story with me, the how of how she came to be. And frankly, the pressures that created her were heartbreaking. When I heard that story, I could no longer see Madame Gupta as a villain, but as another victim of an uncaring universe. Only love warms us, and she never had it. I had to give her the hope of redemption, or I was abusing her as had so many others.

The narrative tension in the novel stems from your use of dramatic irony. About halfway through, we the readers figure out who’s behind the Reaping before Olympia, Terry, Hannibal, Nicki, et al. do—and that puts us in the overseeing/omniscient perspective of Madame Gupta. How intentional was this? [Possible spoiler.]

Oh, very. And I was laughing like a loon once I had Terry taking Nicki to Madame Gupta for “protection.” God, I’m such a bastard sometimes.

We see three forms of family and loyalty play out: Olympia’s family (which Terry joins); Terry and his veteran buddies; and Madame Gupta and her followers and guards. Was this a theme you set out from the beginning to write about or did it happen on its own as you developed the story?

I think that themes are best developed after the first draft. It took me three years just to figure out how to balance the structural elements!

You mention in the acknowledgments of Twelve Days that autism and ADD can be highly charged subjects. Did you have any hesitation about making Hannibal a neurodiverse character? Were there any challenges with balancing characterization and research?

Yes. I knew that I was flirting with danger. That Hannibal could be a painful “Daredevil” archetype: blind people get superpowers! Autistic people are all geniuses! But I had to sigh and move forward. The truth is that some autistic people do have unusual capacity. And if that is true, then if I present my characters and their trials accurately, I’ve harmed no one. However, I know that I’m still vulnerable to criticism. People are very sensitive these days. Personally, I’d rather be too sensitive than too callous, and those are the only real choices. But I also think that artists have the right to express themselves; they just have to take responsibility for what they create. I have friends with autistic children, my own son has ADD, and I read extensively on the subject. Studied Temple Grandin and others, and decided that I could give it a shot. I love that little boy, and if hoping that autistic children have a rich inner world is a sin, I guess I’m a sinner.

You feature martial arts and yoga practices prominently in the novel. You also write about them on your blog, which you update very frequently. Do your blog posts contribute in any way to your fiction and vice versa?

Really, both of them are expressions of me. The blog posts empty my brain out every morning, and my teaching and writing are then more explicit explorations of what Jed McKenna might call “Spiritual Autolysis,” the working-through of the core questions: “Who am I?” and “What is true?” that are paths to unraveling the ego-cocoon and awakening.

In your 2002 Strange Horizons interview, you said you got involved with the martial arts for self-defense and that they helped you develop a spine. What does practicing martial arts mean for you now?

Intellectual curiosity, fun, companionship. Pleasure in moving excellently. Being exposed to mastery that manifests on the physical level, so that I can study the subtler aspects of it. I gave myself a Christmas present in 2016: three hours of private lessons with one of the greatest living martial arts instructors, Danny Inosanto. Whenever you have a chance to be in the presence of someone who is an unquestioned master, you should take it. I love to ask questions about what has motivated them to continue past “good” or “excellent” into “mastery.” The basics are always the same: There is something they love, they found a way to support themselves doing it (usually), they love both teaching and performing the thing. There is often a core memory that triggers an emotion that is sustaining and gets them up in the morning and staying up late at night.

I don’t believe in “talent” very much. Except for one thing: the “talent” of focusing on something until you have integrated it at the level of unconscious competence. Those 10,000 hours. I think in most cases, people use “talent” to explain why they don’t try. Every time I’ve gotten close to excellence, they spent more time, energy, emotion, and thought than the people they exceeded. Never seen a convincing exception.

Hypnosis is another specialty of yours featured in the novel. In fact, you’re a certified hypnotist. How did you get involved with hypnosis?

Curiosity about consciousness. Really, human beings are in a trance state all the time; the only question is where on the consciousness continuum you are at a given time. Think of it like a radio band. Everything from hyper-alert to dead asleep. There are frequencies appropriate for study, playing sports, making love, or anything else. Meditation is just the science of teaching your mind to hit a given part of that spectrum. Some of those points are very useful for piercing illusion, and therefore have spiritual power: Spirit is what remains when all the lies have been removed. Self-hypnosis is just putting yourself in a very observant and suggestible state for things like relaxation, stress relief, learning, implanting new belief patterns, and so forth. Hypnosis from outside you is allowing another human being to lead you into these states. There are fascinating connections between hypnosis and the “story trance” that all writers would profit by understanding. I’d suggest studying Ericksonian Hypnosis: Milton Erickson was a friggin’ genius.

Along with the martial arts, you feature many shout-outs to major genre touchstones: 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Matrix; Star Wars; Blade Runner; and The Terminator, just to name a few. The references bring an intertextual/meta dimension to the novel. Are you commenting on how much the mythology of science fiction is embedded in our culture?

Mostly having fun. It felt right. I could step back and agree with you, take credit for consciously manipulating symbols to some metatextual effect, but that pattern would exist because a writer creates unconscious competence integrating multiple aspects of storytelling and philosophy in the “mere” practice of saying “once upon a time.” Layers on layers on layers. Wheels within wheels in fractal array, like matryoshka Russian dolls. So much fun, and so many ways to approach it. My dear friend Charles Johnson of Middle Passage fame writes metatextually. And he takes years between books, and it shows. I’m just a storyteller. All I ever wanted to be. But as I deepen my craft, God willing and the river don’t rise, the aspects will start to resemble a living thing rather than a hodge-podge of parts. And living things have symmetry, and yield themselves to endless study and analysis. Great question, by the way.

In one scene, Olympia and Hannibal escape from Madame Gupta’s lair through a topiary maze while it’s snowing. This must be a reference to The Shining, right?

Not at first, although as I got into it, it certainly occurred to me that that connection could be made. I think my first exposure to such things was a sixties’ horror movie called The Maze I watched when I was a kid. Something about a guy who’d turned into a frog, if memory serves. All this stuff blends together in the attic.

You mention 2001: A Space Odyssey as one your favorite works in a 2007 NPR group interview with Tananarive Due and Sheree R. Thomas (n.pr/2nHbgC1). Why do you say the film is virtually nonpareil in science fiction?

It is my favorite movie. Nothing else has ever blown my mind like 2001. Part of that is undoubtedly my age when it came out. I was sixteen. That was 1968 . . . my God, I wasn’t born yet! My mother was pregnant with me, dropped acid, and sat in the first row…

No, I was sixteen. Sigh. Anyway, part of it was that you had two supremely brilliant artists (Kubrick and Clarke) collaborating and asking what contact with an alien species might be, and devising an answer that was both direct and oblique: We cannot imagine. Part of it was McLuhanesque: The medium is the message. In other words, a film about the technology of the future that utilizes technology to create images that we’d never seen before, used in ways we’d never seen, to a purpose we’d never experienced. All of that together just rattled my cage. One of the great pleasures of my life was sitting down with Arthur C. Clarke for two hours, having lunch, trying not to babble like a fan-boy.

Science fiction is a mythology of possible futures and alternate realities. You’ve stated in previous interviews, however, that it’s socially conservative. Notwithstanding the drama of Sad/Rabid Puppygate, have you seen any perceptible shifts, however big or small, leading science fiction on a more progressive path?

It’s more conceptually conservative than it thinks it is. The people working within it try to break that box, but human beings are only so flexible. So ninety-nine percent of Golden Age SF, up to the eighties, was what I call “white people and their imaginary friends,” with the rather grotesque delusion that depicting aliens was somehow equivalent to depicting, say, black people.

Thanks a bunch.

The self-congratulatory nonsense of that broke my heart when I first realized that some people believed it. Others were just as bigoted as folks in the mainstream, but broke their arms slapping themselves on the back about how open-minded they were. Lovely chaps. Ugh. But the answer is: Absolutely, things have improved. After Chip Delany left the field, it was just me and Octavia, and I was the only black male SF writer I ever heard of for almost twenty years. I cannot begin to tell you how lonely that was. And the horror was that many apparently well-intended fans and even editors believed, really believed, that this absence was due to the fact that, why, black people just didn’t like science fiction. That melanin poisons the imagination centers of the brain, y’know.

No, we’re just the same as anyone else: White people create images of white people and are more attracted to those. Asians create images of Asians and are more attracted to those. And black people create images of black people and are more attracted to those. The idea that that near-total exclusion might somehow influence our willingness to invest ourselves emotionally never seemed to occur to them, as if they were thinking: “Well, we will read anything, about anyone, why won’t you?” without dealing with the ironically obvious:No, you won’t.” Nor will you create it. Nor do you notice that you don’t, and haven’t, and you blame us rather than assuming we have the same humanity, hopes and dreams as you do, and might be reluctant to go where we’re not welcome.

This is changing, and that’s a beautiful thing. But you have to remember that the ugly stereotypes that justified slavery didn’t really start breaking down until about 1970, when fifty-one percent of America finally decided black people were fully human and able to assume the full burden of citizenship. The white kids born after that point bear none of the guilt and shame for what came before, and many of them are genuinely curious about what “others” are really like. “If you aren’t the stereotypes my grandparents needed to believe in to protect themselves from guilt, shame, and fear of reprisal, then who are you, really?

I think that the artists who can answer that question elegantly have the chance to succeed.

You’ve recently organized a ten-week workshop, “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares,” (bit.ly/2nHentN) with Tananarive Due. The first workshop was held on March 25. Tell us what it’s about and the goals you and Tananarive Due have for it.

Afrofuturism is the creative output of the African Diaspora. Most essentially, the slaves had their languages, cultures, names, religions, history, mythology, and more stripped away from them, like wiping a hard drive and implanting “Slave 1.0.” And then, we never had the generational isolation necessary to build a new culture. But human beings are resilient, and we began creating our own black American mythological heroes (“John Henry” for instance) and then, when we had generations sufficiently educated and middle-class to produce both scientists and artists, it became inevitable that we’d also create science-fiction literature, art, and even music.

The goal of the class is to educate future black artists, as well as inform consumers and fans of Afrofuturism of all kinds. In addition, those with a touch of conceptual flexibility will be able to step back and say: “Hey! I could do something similar with the issues I support in my own life!” The meta lessons apply to women’s rights, Asian issues, cultural issues, LGBTQ issues . . . whatever. It all stems from a belief in human equality, and a wish to look unblinkingly at both the evil we do to each other, and how amazing human beings can be when we open our hearts.

Guests and subjects of your workshop include Luke Cage Netflix series creator Cheo Hodari Coker, Nnedi Okorafor, Samuel R. Delany, artist and activist Bree Newsome, and many others. Wow! How did you put together such a stellar (pardon the pun) lineup?

We’ve met and interacted with a lot of folks over the years. Harlan Ellison introduced me to Samuel Delany many years ago, and he was present at the “African American Fantastic Imagination” conference at Clark Atlanta University twenty years ago, when I met my wife. Nnedi was one of my Clarion students. Bree Newsome came to speak at a symposium Tananarive sponsored when she was resident scholar at Clark Atlanta. Cheo Hodari Coker is a Facebook buddy. It’s a small world. We all know each other, or know people who know people. Black America is tiny. I’d never met anyone who had ever known a President, until Obama. And I know about six people who know or have met him. One of my best friends went to prep school with him, and I’ve shaken his hand. Six degrees of separation? Hah! Try three. So T and I are known to these folks, and to the degree that we’ve done something worthy of note, they believe our intentions are positive, and they are. My goal is to create one million awake, aware, adult human beings by supporting one thousand awake, aware adult artists and writers. That’s what Afrofuturism is about; they got it, and they gave us the precious gift of their time to help us make it so. People who want to be a part of it can go to afrofuturismwebinar.com, or write me at [email protected].

In addition to the workshop, are there any new projects you’re working on now that you can tell us about?

As we speak, T and I are working on a television pilot, fun stuff. Horror, not SF. I’m finishing a novel with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the sequel to The Legacy of Heorot. And we’re guiding young writers at our “Lifewriting” Facebook group (bit.ly/2oA2CJg). Keeps me busy!

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.