Seth is a delight from the moment we see him with his family, to his exploration of Titan. My heart went out to him when things went wrong. What was the seed for this story, and what made Seth the best person to be the center of it?
For a long time I have wanted to write a story about space exploration for the rest of us—that is, those of us who are not fighter pilots, crazy wealthy, or even physically fit. So far, space has been reserved for elites, and as long as we insist on sending wetware up there, it’s going to stay that way. But there are other ways! We don’t have to be passive observers of other peoples’ heroism, even in the short run. Seth is more or less catapulted into space one day, and events there put his career in jeopardy, but he still gets to go home to his family afterward—and that, not Heinleinian heroism, is what saves the day.
The immediate seed for the story came from a workshop I attended in China, which was focused on how to provide high-tech services most of us take for granted, such as bank accounts and credit, to people in undeveloped or rural parts of the world. I thought, “Why couldn’t we use the same thinking to democratize space exploration?”
I know there’s a lot of nuance important to this discussion and question, but Seth’s take on NASA made me wonder, is square-jawed heroism inherently regressive? What’s the shape of modern SF heroism, and is it responding to the same questions SF had five or ten years ago?
SF is a very broad field, and there are still quite a few hypercompetent heroes out there. Even female heroes get forced into this mold—tougher, smarter, harder hitting than the rest of us. Of course, they all have to “grapple with demons,” a cliché that makes me cross because it’s like a checkmark on a hero résumé. People without demons need not apply. The problem with cardboard heroes is that SF helps shape our expectations of reality. People hold real astronauts, real leaders, real expeditions up to the standards of SF, which makes it hard for them to take risks or innovate.
But on the forward edges, SF is inching ahead of reality, as it is apt to do. I think the influx of authors with non-Western roots is helping expand our image of heroism. As is the fact that women and LGBT authors feel less pressure to write SF the way it was always written. The blurring of lines between SF and mainstream by authors like China Miéville, David Mitchell, and Colson Whitehead also helps.
You have this fabulous ability to bring unexpected elements together, and push science fiction into areas that don’t get a lot of commercial attention. What are your favorite things to read? Is there an author or work you return to and think, “Wow, I wish I could do that!”
I am constantly thinking “Wow, I wish I could do that.” It’s part of the fun of reading. These days, I am deliberately seeking out work by people I haven’t read before.
The most recent book to make me envious is Sue Burke’s Semiosis. Its worldbuilding is just awesome. Before that, I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, a book completely outside my skillset, which nevertheless kept me from minding that I was on a thirteen-hour plane flight to Beijing. Before that, it was Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, a gentle and odd book I missed when it came out in the 1990s. I’m glad I rediscovered it.
You mentioned in a prior spotlight that you think of your curation work as theater, designing an experience as visitors move through the exhibit. Has this influenced you as an author, either technically or creatively?
Absolutely. Exhibits are very stripped-down experiences. You don’t have much time to set the scene, and every word, every sight, every juxtaposition has to count. Writing labels is like writing haiku. The longer I do it, the more succinct my novels and stories become. I rely more on telegraphing unstated messages and finding the one essential word rather than three almost-right words.
What can we look forward to next from you?
My next novel is a complete departure for me: a gonzo comedy about the near-term future of the United States. Honest, I want to make you laugh at the downfall of the nation state. I also have two novelettes on my desk. After that, who knows? Something completely different, I think.
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