In “The Independence Patch,” Donny’s existence is a struggle between his identity and the expectations of others. From the pity of his teachers to his mother’s hopes and fears for his future, from Rowena’s feelings to the eventual truth of the Independence Patch, Donny refuses to surrender his identity, that of a human being no matter the augmentations or supports that are necessary for him to live. Tell us a bit about what inspired this story.
Oddly enough, what inspired the story isn’t in the story anymore! This started out as a writing assignment given to us by Mary Rosenblum my first week at Clarion West. We each picked a slip of paper out of a hat with an emotion on it. I think mine was fear? Desperation? Sacrifice? 2012 is a long time ago, yo. Anyway, we had to write a scene that night depicting that emotion without ever saying it, and then read it to the class the next day, so they could try to guess what we were trying to convey. I wrote about a time I dove into a pool to save my little brother and, because of the situation, genuinely thought I was about to die. We then had to fictionalize that scene, to take our very real, personal emotion, and try to convey it through someone else’s experience. I wrote about an android jumping into a pool to save his “brother.”
After Clarion West, that scene was one of the things I thought had the most potential, so I tried to write a story about that android character that included that scene, but everything ended up feeling like every other “synthetic human wants to be a real boy like Pinocchio” story I’d consumed, only not as good. Then my sister in law gave me a copy of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind for Christmas, and I started to think through the technology of it a bit more. In that book, Kurzweil argues that we’re already offloading a chunk of our mental work to machines, and that the line between consciousness and identity and information and memory is pretty hard to define. We like to think that we’re a single, continuous identity that’s evolved from one moment into the next, but it’s weirder than that.
Take memories, for instance. They’re imperfect and fleeting, and yet we build so much of our sense of self upon them. “I am the person today who remembers the person I was yesterday.” So if you forget a particular event, are you a different person than the one who experienced it? You almost certainly remember it differently than it actually happened. Our brains are incredible at filling in details to make our memories more believable. It gets even more wild when you add technology into the mix. Nobody remembers phone numbers anymore. And that’s fine, computers are way better at number recall than brains are (especially mine.) But what happens if we start putting more than just our data in a digital space? What happens if you start backing up your important memories to a hard drive so you don’t forget them? Who is you, the brain or the hard drive or both? That’s where a lot of the ideas about identity that you mentioned came from. It got me re-thinking that android story in more of a cyborg line of thought, and that led me here.
Unfortunately, the pool scene didn’t fit, both in terms of word count and in terms of themes and pacing, so it ultimately got cut. Maybe I’ll find the story it fits in one day; after all, Donny is far from the only Integrate in his world.
When it comes to laws governing education, ANDREA is an excellent fictional equivalent of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). How do you see ANDREA having developed in this world? Would you say it came about for the benefit of the Integrates or for those who feel the need to protect themselves?
I was a high school teacher for just over a decade, and a few years of that was spent as a special education inclusion teacher. So I was absolutely thinking of things like IDEA and the ADA when I came up with ANDREA. I think it developed in my fictional world in exactly the way far too many laws in our own world are developed: mostly by people who won’t be affected by them.
I’m not entirely cynical. I know that often these sorts of things are started by someone who has a horse in the race. Write enough letters and stage enough rallies (or even get elected to an office yourself) and you can get attention to an issue, like, in this case, the idea that a child with computer hardware in their brain might have different educational and social needs, strengths, and interests than one who doesn’t. But with attention comes, you know, attention, which leads to people who don’t have any experience with an issue suddenly having an opinion on an issue. Which leads to people who have never been addicted to a drug legislating whether or not drug abuse should be criminalized. Or people making laws about reproductive health and rights who will never be affected by it. Among many, many others.
Time to get off my soap box, but I’ll just point out that neither Donny’s mom nor Donny’s teacher ever ask him what he thinks about ANDREA.
I like how you focused on Donny’s “organic” experiences: boredom; not wanting to sneeze and wake Rowena; the pain of breaking up. These traits encourage the reader to relate to Donny instead of settling into a sense of awe or unease at his cyborg nature. As a writer, how important do you think it is to create believable, relatable characters? Would you say the need is even more pronounced in science fiction and other genre stories?
Character is really where a story starts to take shape for me. Sometimes I’ll think of a worldbuilding concept, or a cool line, or a potential trope subversion that I think is interesting on its own, but those get shuffled into an Evernote file until someone worth writing about also comes along for the ride. A lot of first drafts are less about feeling my way through the plot, and more about discovering the person who is telling the story.
In terms of relatable characters, as a cishet, white, able-bodied male, I try to be aware of my privilege as much as possible. For me, that means “othering” a character, especially through a speculative lens, is off the table. So making my characters relatable, in the sense that they feel like real people with their own, unique issues, instead of metaphors for something else is something I strive for in my fiction. Take this story for example. Donny more or less started out as me. As I thought about what his life might be like, though, he very quickly became someone else. A big part of the problem I was having with the character when he was a fully synthetic being is that the writing fell too much in that “unease” place, as you described it, and thus, felt too much like a metaphor for a person on the autism spectrum. So in that sense, the character had to be believable in order to be worth writing about.
In terms of whether this concern is greater for writers of speculative fiction, I suppose the easiest answer is to just admit that at this point in my life I don’t really believe in genre anymore. Calling something a mystery or romance or fantasy helps you find it in a bookstore, but I don’t think the demands on the writer are necessarily all that different. Nor do I think readers of one versus another are any more savvy or open or closed off than others. I do understand where you’re coming from, since the “I’m-just-standing-in-for-a-trope” characters are pretty obvious in speculative fiction, and are one of the things that folks who don’t really read the genre criticize about it, but stock characters have been around since at least comedia dell’arte. Arguably as long as stories. So the short answer to your question is no, I don’t think a focus on character is any more important for speculative fiction than any other genre, nor do I even think it’s important for good fiction. But it’s of massive importance to me.
Your novel The City of Lost Fortunes will be released in April from John Joseph Adams Books. What would you say the biggest difference is between writing short stories and writing a novel?
The smartass in me wants to just say “length” and move on, but I’m not slick enough to Harrison Ford my way through an interview, so . . .
Honestly for me, there isn’t much of a difference in terms of approach. That blinking cursor on a blank page is so intimidating that I can’t just show up with a short story’s worth of ideas to back me up. I’ve got to bring the whole crew, you know? So many of my short stories are slivers of the massive world inside my head. In that way, I guess the easiest analogy would be a season of television versus a single episode. Some series need to be viewed episode by episode in order to be understood, but some episodes are a single, coherent narrative in and of themselves. I’m expansive. I love the long con, so my fiction tends to follow that mindset.
In terms of execution, they’re very different, especially depending on the kind of short story we’re talking about. With this story, by deciding to make it a bildungsroman, I was able to think of this story as a novel writ small, with each section functioning as a chapter of Donny’s life, whereas I often find my short stories end up feeling like a section of a larger narrative. It’s funny, I am in awe of short fiction writers like Ted Chiang or Jorge Luis Borges who can generate these amazing, dense pieces of short fiction that are as deep as novels, but it’s like watching a solo free climber. I can appreciate the work without having any desire to try it myself.
All writers are readers. Who inspires you between the covers? To whom do you turn when you want to get your fiction on?
Well, there’s the list of those writers who, if I hadn’t read them, I likely wouldn’t be a writer, full stop. Borges. Eco. Crowley. King. Le Guin. Mosley. Valente.
In terms of some writers that I’ve read in the past couple of years that really blew my hair back, the first thing that comes to mind is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. It twisted me around in that first book in a way that I usually see coming, but didn’t, and then the next two novels just roared. The Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two halves of James S. A. Corey, just keeps getting better. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing had me walking around in a daze for hours after I finished it, as did Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My friend Bill Loehfelm’s doing some great New Orleans mystery work with his Maureen Coughlin series. Malka Older’s The Centenal Cycle is exactly the kind of science fiction that the world needs right now. Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods was just a delight. If I wasn’t already a big fan, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper would have convinced me to go back and read everything she’s ever written. And in April, Sam J. Miller’s got a book coming out called Blackfish City that is just hands down stunning.
I’ll stop there, because otherwise I’ll pull up my Goodreads page and then we’ll be here all week.
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