How did “Space Pirate Queen of the Ten Billion Utopias” originate? What inspirations did you draw on?
Everything was terrible in the summer of 2020. The pandemic was spreading wildly; the whole West Coast was on fire; right-wing vigilantes gunned people down in the streets with seeming impunity; feds disappeared people into unmarked vans; we asked the cops to stop murdering Black people and they responded by semi-permanently shrouding parts of my city in a haze of chemical warfare so thick that people’s pets were dropping dead in their apartments. As soon as that blew away, the wildfire smoke rolled in even thicker. Everyone I knew was hanging on by a thread.
I asked my Twitter followers what kind of story would bolster their mental health, and the various answers were: space pirates, space hobos, lesbian vampires, utopian fiction, hopeful stories, happy endings, and Princess Bride energy. I’m a strong believer in the creative power of arbitrary constraints—so I made a list of all these elements, and then I tried to write a single story that incorporated all of them at once. (I wasn’t able to fit in any vampires, sadly, but I think I got at least a bit of everything else.) I’ve written a lot of very bleak stories, so writing the opposite was a worthwhile challenge. It forced me to think a lot about escapism, and what utopia means to me.
What is your writing process like? Did this story fit the pattern?
I had a vague sense of how this story would end when I started, but it was mostly improvised, which is a rarity for me. Normally I’m on the extreme far end of the plotter-pantser spectrum; I have scene-by-scene outlines for most stories before I begin writing them. But I find the more constraints you have, the more the story writes itself.
Where are you in this story?
I’m the “I” character more than anyone else. I’m nowhere near as powerful as Ursa, and nowhere near as cool and functional as Calliope—but I’ve known many people who are, and I’d like to give a voice to my admiration for them. If I saw the aethertrain cross into our world, I would certainly be tempted to swing a grappling hook at it, but I don’t think I would have the guts, or the upper body strength.
What trends in speculative fiction would you like to see gain popularity in the next few years?
I see speculative fiction going through a deep rethinking of utopia and dystopia right now—and the very notion of the future, for that matter. We’ve had an established and beautiful tradition of imagining the world going to hell, but we’ve kind of passed the point at which those stories had any functionality as warnings. Everything is going to hell. Everyone who was ever going to hear our warnings heard them loud and clear a very long time ago.
We don’t need dystopian stories anymore: we need stories for a dystopian audience. There is overlap, and this need not be a radically new thing; there are excellent examples across the history of SF/F. The trend I see, that I want to see more of, is speculative fiction as a medicine for our existential despair—and ideally not just as a numbing agent. There are many ways to accomplish this. Sometimes what’s needed is a highly believable exploration of a future that has averted the current apocalypses, to grow our will and courage to fight for such a future. Sometimes it’s a story about living through strife and collapse, to lend us the mental endurance to do that. Sometimes it’s a story about everything that might grow out of the ashes of what we know, because something will.
What are you working on lately? Where else can fans look for your work?
My debut novel, Unity, came out this past April! It’s a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk thriller, featuring collective consciousness and doomsday, and you can find it anywhere you find books. And you can find a list of my other published short stories at elbangs.com. Most are free to read online. My current project is a trilogy of contemporary fantasy novels about queer wizard school dropouts who semi-accidentally break the world, but it’s too soon to say much more about that.
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