How did this story come about?
This story takes place in the world of my novel, The Outside (currently a finalist for the Philip K. Dick and Compton Crook awards for 2020). In The Outside, Akavi, Elu, and Enga appear as a team of antagonists. But I love villains and I wanted to spend more time with them from their own perspective. I especially wanted to spend POV time with Enga, who’s a favorite of mine, and who has several dramatic moments in the novel, but don’t allow readers to see anything from her own perspective.
I find Enga fascinating to write because she’s such a badass yet significantly disabled. Obviously she has cyborg limbs and technology in her head, which in some ways help her find workarounds for her impairments, but she’s still impaired; she still faces significant challenges that the other characters don’t and would never be mistaken for an able-bodied person. I’ve always seen her as a character who is deeply angry. She acts on that anger in ways that make her complicit with the power structures that have hurt her and others, but some of her anger is towards those systems, too. She’s more of a wild card than Akavi realizes. And because her own communications, even through text, are so taciturn, we don’t see the full depth or the source of her anger in the novel. I have a soft spot for angry, troubled, messy characters and I wanted to give Enga a story that would more thoroughly explore the role of anger in her life.
We may see more of Enga’s POV in The Fallen, which comes out in 2021, but I’m still drafting that book, so it’s hard to make guarantees. We certainly haven’t seen the last of her.
How did you decide on the names for the angels?
I’m actually terrible at names. When I was little, I named my toys things like “Amacabame” and “Puddluck.” (I tried to conlang in high school and was hilariously bad at it.) I want to give people catchy, memorable names that follow well-thought-out morphological rules, as opposed to being facerolls on the keyboard, but I have trouble with it. I often rely on a tool called Awkwords (bit.ly/2IbHpNS), which allows an author to input different letter combinations and phonotactic rules and then generates a bunch of candidate words based on those rules. A lot of the names still end up hard for readers to pronounce (there’s a minor character in The Outside named Alkipileudjea) but this way there’s a method to the madness.
Right now I have twenty-six separate Awkwords files for names corresponding to different ethnic & national origins in the world of The Outside. Most of these have only ever been used once or twice. Enga, Elu, and Akavi’s names each come from a different one of these files. Angels in this universe come from a variety of cultures on a variety of planets, but all these planets are ruled by the Gods. Then there is the “-of Nemesis” at the end of their names, which denotes the God they belong to now that they’re angels; mortals don’t have these appellations. Higher ranking angels also have their rank as part of their name; so the title “Inquisitor of Nemesis” is part of Akavi’s full name.
There are eleven Gods (plus one failed, demonic proto-God), but only Nemesis, the God of retribution, plays a major role in this story. Arete, a God with a nicer personality, is mentioned very briefly.
The names of the Gods themselves are taken from ancient Greek. In my earliest notes, they all had nonsense Awkwords names like everyone else, but an alpha reader and long-term collaborator of mine suggested naming them after Old Human gods, to underscore the idea of how powerful and different they are. I didn’t want to use the most well-known gods (Nemesis is the least obscure of the twelve) but instead used the Greek names for personifications of concepts. This fits with the way these Gods interact with their world, since each oversees a separate domain of human affairs and claims the souls of a different kind of person.
I laughed when reading how the reality of a spaceship varied from how mortals imagined the ship: Do you have a long list of these kinds of annoying themes in science fiction?
For me, it’s less about anything I’m annoyed by and more about the position of angels in their society. They’re revered and feared, but in their lives are very separate from those of mortals. The mortals in this universe don’t have the ability to load vast amounts of information directly into their heads and they don’t really have access to anything in their everyday life that resembles the technology angels use on a daily basis. So, when representing angels in popular culture, mortals visualize them doing things in ways that are more recognizable and easier to represent on a TV screen. That plus the level of mystique around angels means their public image is in many ways different from the reality.
Can you talk about your Autistic Book Party?
Sure! This is a project I’ve been doing since 2012 in which I write in-depth reviews of autistic speculative fiction books. By “autistic books” I mean books with autistic characters, books with openly autistic authors, or both. This started when I wrote a post criticizing the autism representation in a famous short story, and an author more famous than me reblogged it. I am autistic myself, and suddenly a ton of people wanted to know my opinion on the way autism was portrayed in various different books, most of which I hadn’t read. In the years since this occurred, I’ve learned a lot about the pressures that face marginalized authors and the negative effects of being expected to speak as a cultural expert on your own marginalization. But honestly, at the time I found it really affirming. All these people were genuinely interested in my opinion about something important to me! So I started up the review series.
It’s still going, although I’m often slow with it. My goal is to average a book per month, and I often fall short. It’s also partly funded by my Patreon.
Since I’ve been working on the project for eight years, I’ve seen the way autism representation has evolved that time. Neurodiversity in fiction honestly has a much higher profile now than it did even a decade ago. And autistic people are writing speculative fiction much faster than I can review it all! Many are self-published, but there has been progress with traditional publishing, particularly in mid-sized presses like Angry Robot and Solaris. (Note: Angry Robot is my publisher.) These days, so many autistic authors are offering me review copies that I have to turn some down, which sucks. A pipe dream of mine is to get a team of several autistic reviewers together so as to cover more ground.
If you want to read the book reviews, a good place to start is here: ada-hoffmann.com/reviews-index.
What are some of your favorite short stories from 2019?
I’m writing this just before the Nebula nomination deadline, so thanks for prodding me to review my notes on my favorites. Here are a few:
Megan Arkenberg’s “The Night Princes,” which has fantasy and a grim reality interweaving in complex, psychologically realistic ways and defies easy interpretation.
S.L. Huang’s “As the Last I May Know” and Jamie Wahls’s “Truth Plus,” both of which are heartrending and thought-provoking stories about difficult ethical dilemmas with high stakes. They stayed in my mind long after reading.
Brit E.B. Hvide’s “A Catalog of Love at First Sight,” which ties together so many different forms of love and the ways human communities support each other in the face of great disaster.
D.H. Kelly’s novelette “The Furious Chisel,” which blew me away with both its disability representation and its approach to AI. My favorite part is the way the narrator tries to be as respectful and thoughtful to her robot companion as she can, even when it’s not clear what that means for them both.
Tegan Moore’s “A Forest, or a Tree” and Elizabeth Childs’s “The Beckoning Green,” two very different kinds of feminist horror story, both verdant and alive, emotionally aware and full of growing things.
And, Nibedita Sen’s “We Sang You as Ours,” a tale of sea monsters both graceful and grisly, and of young sisters finding ways to break free of their supernatural family’s toxic patterns.
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