The story plays with the need to find answers and take actions against things that are seemingly inevitable. Did you find that was emergent in the story as you wrote it, or something that was clear to you when you began?
This is something that pops up in a number of my stories. For one thing, I find our reactions to the inevitable fascinating. When you are faced with something inevitable, do you accept it? Try to adapt to it? Fight back? That last can present some interesting conflict, since facing the inevitable—and trying to stop it—presents a genuine challenge, both to me and the characters. Me, because I have to figure out some way to get the characters out of that situation, and the characters, because they have to carry out whatever bizarre plan I’ve come up with.
For another, I think we, as a species, have a tendency to confuse the inevitable—death—with things that may not be so inevitable—decay. So I like to explore that tension. Sure, if you’re out in the middle of deep space, running out of fuel and supplies, things look really bad—but how bad are they really?
Els’s need to take action against the rushing sense of her mortality was compelling and dire. By the time the tendril shows up, we’re now dealing with a narrator we might not trust by virtue of their ragged psyche. These are conventions usually used in horror and crime fiction. Why choose them for an SF piece, a genre that loves the rational?
I’m not entirely certain that the SF genre does love the rational—even the hardest SF stories often have a sense of wonder, of fear, of the unknown. As far back as Frankenstein, several SF works have straddled the line between horror and the rational, or used unreliable narrators, or narrators at a mental breaking point. Twentieth-century science fiction has several classic examples of this from Stanislaw Lem, C.L. Moore’s “Shambleau” and “Black Thirst,” Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, and, of course, the Alien and Aliens films. More recently, we’ve seen this in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, with its blend of science fiction and horror, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, whose narrator is under constant threat of death. I haven’t encountered quite as much hard SF/crime fiction crossovers, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Disappeared is basically a murder mystery with aliens, and Jack McDevitt has often added crime elements to his science fiction novels.
And bluntly, many science fiction staples don’t really make all that much sense. Is it really rational to leave Earth—a place that, whatever its other issues, at least has food, water, and breathable air—for the vastness of space, which may not have any of those things in easily accessible forms? Perhaps when we get closer to the annihilation of the Earth when our Sun explodes into a red giant, but for now, probably not. And yet, if you offered me a ride in a space ship to go explore the Alpha Centauri system right now, I’d go. No question. And I’ll cheer on pretty much every character who wants to go as well. (Maybe not the characters on Stargate Universe. Most of them were boring or annoying or both. But everyone else.)
To go back to this particular story, however, I needed to give Els and Dun a reason to be in conflict with this alien, one who hasn’t, after all, done anything to them. Desperate people do things that non-desperate people wouldn’t. I’d also argue that “Deathlight” is hard SF only on its surface. At its core, it’s a fairy tale—almost the companion piece to my earlier story, “Stronger Than the Wind,” which was a fairy tale on the surface, and hard SF at its core, the sort of genre mixing I love to play with.
The Tower’s arrival gave the story a sense of history (is it a rocket or human trash?) being synonymous with being alien (as well as being a catalyst for action). Was that on purpose and, if so, why?
Yes. I didn’t just want to have these two people floating out in deep space: I wanted them to be part of something more.
Els’ efforts almost from the start are to find meaning. The driver is riches, perhaps, but in experiencing the alien, she desires most of all to find patterns and meaning, which we’d initially seen as a futile attempt to ward off death at the beginning. Do you like stories that play with subtext and theme more than action?
Well, once again, I’m not sure that the divide is always that sharp. Sure, there’s stories that are pure action, and others that focus on subtext and theme, but I think even the most action-packed stories have subtext of some kind, even if creators aren’t aware of it. You see this a lot in television—The CW’s The 100, for instance, is, on the surface, mostly about people running around trying to kill each other in between just trying to survive, but it also has a number of political themes and subtext. In general, I’d argue that most art is inherently political and themed.
And, of course, viewers and readers can and do put their own interpretations on what they see. To detour a bit to the other common use of “subtext”—take a look at the Star Wars fans that are happily shipping Kylo Ren with Rey or Finn and Poe, and arguing that the subtext of the film supports their preferred pairing. I’m not sure what the writers, director, and actors intended with either pairing, but I do know that a number of fans found something there. My own personal experience suggests that all sorts of things can creep into the creative process—I’ve gone back and looked at my stories and poems years later and found entirely new things—usually anger—that I was unaware of feeling at the time.
In terms of what I prefer—it depends. Sometimes I just want a straightforward comedy; sometimes a silly popcorn action film (although a number of those are loaded with political subtext), and sometimes I hunger for subtlety and shading.
Spread the word!