Let’s start at the beginning: What was the inspiration behind this story? In particular, this story is bookended by allusions to Elvis Presley and Carl Sagan, so how did the idea to use those two as guideposts come about?
My father woke me up on April 12, 1981 to watch the very first Space Shuttle launch. I remember how it affected me and filled me with such pride and awe that we as a species were able to do that, to send human beings into space on a plane atop a column of fire. Fast forward to today, when we’re making leaps and bounds in space technology, but the public has mostly lost interest in it, at least it seems that way from my limited vantage point. And I thought, what would be better to grab the public’s imagination than a pop star performing songs in space? An early reader of the story described Jaim’s performance as a Beatles’ moment, when the world is bowled over by something profound and unexpected, and thereafter everything changes. Elvis was that, I think, for a lot of people, and I wanted the power of his influence to linger in the reader’s mind. I’m also a huge fan of Carl Sagan and his writing. What struck me when I first started reading his work was how poetic he can be. There were moments reading Pale Blue Dot where I just teared up, it’s so beautiful.
The first rule of online survival is “Never read the comments.” This story, however, not only combs through the comments but arranges them into a story about pop spectacle as a lens to explore representational identity and a broader perspective on being human. What was it about this kind of epistolary structure that you found attractive? Were there any particular challenges or unexpected freedoms that this approach presented?
So there are a million little pockets on the internet where one can find their particular tribe or band or kinfolk, and in each of these pockets there are these billion little conversations that happen, and it seems to me, as we get more and more connected, that it becomes harder and harder to filter out value from noise. One of the ways we self-filter the noise is by hunkering down inside one of these pockets (which some have called echo-chambers) and isolate ourselves from ideas which we find foreign or distasteful. I think, to get a clearer picture of humanity, at least for this story, it was important to show how, if not the whole world, certain corners of the planet might respond to Jaim’s performance. It would be naïve to think that everyone would react positively. I don’t think you can be fully honest without showing some ugliness.
As for the challenges, hoo-boy. I spent a lot of time reading articles, comments, and posts across the internet on almost all of the sources listed in the story. Some of the titles were ripped near verbatim from the headlines, with the salient points changed, of course. It was important for me to show how every culture would see Jaim through their own lens, and I had to make sure that what I wrote was honest and plausible and most of all respectful of that culture.
This story examines the theme of “visibility” on a number of levels, scaling from Jaim’s identity as a non-binary trans pop star to encompassing the entire “pale blue dot” of Earth. However, by building this story around the kind of online commentary that would normally go unread, all sorts of other voices—both positive and negative, rational and conspiratorial—are given their time in the spotlight, too. What is it about visibility on both the macro and micro platforms that so drives people? Here Jaim uses the visibility granted by their media platform for a positive message of inclusion which overwhelms the anonymous naysayers, but could this kind of access present a danger in a different context?
We’re social creatures and most of us want to be seen and heard. This is human nature. We need to be affirmed. The internet is a place where even the craziest most outlandish ideas can find an audience. When I was younger, I was taught that the “marketplace of ideas” always weeds out the bad ones. In other words, poison ideologies like Nazism would die out when better alternatives were made available. But what we’ve seen is that visibility often spreads toxic ideas just as easily as healthy ones. For example, there are more people today who think the Earth is flat than there were twenty years ago, and the internet mostly enabled that. So, no, visibility is not always a good thing.
On the other hand, I thought it was important to show how everyone would react to Jaim’s performance, including those views we might find toxic, in order to make the story honest. This is who we are, in other words, the good and the bad. I wanted to give the reader a kind of bird’s-eye view of humanity, and maybe, like the Apollo astronauts’ view of the Earth from the Moon, see the planet and our species a little differently after.
One of this story’s many interesting elements is the background noise of commerce and capitalism which surrounds, but does not seem to overwhelm, the human element. The premise starts with the world’s reaction to a pop star’s promotional video which drives clicks on a monetized video-sharing platform and inspires ubiquitous spam for knock-off uniforms, but also inspires (at least some) people to take a broader look at humanity’s shared experience. How do you see the interplay of commerce and human elements in this story? Is that commercial drive an inescapable part of existence on Earth and, if so, is it a pervading negative influence or is it a force that can be harnessed for good?
Capitalism is with us now, and contrary to a lot of talk on the internet, I don’t see it leaving us anytime soon. Capitalism loves to take profound, often intangible ideas and package them in easy to swallow nuggets. Anything that can be sold, will, and even things that can’t be sold will too. And so I think that Jaim would not be immune from any of that. SpaceX wants to get paid, the record company wants to get paid, YouTube wants to get paid, etc. And then there would be the usual food chain of capitalists, who profit from Jaim’s stardom by selling everything from concert tickets down to unlicensed replica jumpsuits probably made in some sweatshop in Asia with child labor. The beauty of Jaim’s performance doesn’t erase the ugliness of the world, but maybe it forces us to become more aware of that ugliness and do something about it.
And the thing about capitalism is that its vectors are well known. It relies on human labor, and there is a moment in the story, however brief, when the engine of capitalism stops as everyone pauses to watch Jaim perform. The world holds its collective breath, and I think of this moment in the meditative sense, a stepping back from the day-to-day do-as-much-as-you-possibly-can grind to self-reflect. Jaim lets the world see itself, if only for an instant.
When the wheel of capitalism starts spinning again, things seemingly go back to the way they were, yet somehow that brief moment of pause and introspection changes things. The ten billion voices, for a brief time, all paused to look up. Will they remember what they saw and felt, and change their course because of it? Maybe. I hope so. I like to think some of them will be inspired the way I was inspired back in 1981 with the first Space Shuttle launch. Maybe they’ll decide humanity has a larger destiny and begin working to bring that about.
And, yes, I do think capitalism can be harnessed for good, so long as you’re clever about it. Solar power is cheaper than coal. Electric cars will soon be on par or cheaper than internal combustion vehicles. Economics is driving their adoption, not altruism. Maybe at some point we’ll all have Universal Basic Income and replicators and the engine of capitalism will stall, but until then we have to be smart and use capitalism to bring about the world we want to live in. Capitalism has its dark side, for sure, made all the more prevalent by the widening gap between rich and poor. But its greatest weakness is its single-mindedness, always towards profit, and so by making the world we want to live in the most economical one, we can steer the capitalist ship in a better direction. This is incredibly hard, but possible.
Finally, what’s coming up next on your horizon? Beyond your concrete plans, are there any big ideas or grand plans that you’re working towards—maybe not quite an author reading while in orbit (or maybe!) but anything else you’re excited to tease?
I’ve just finished a science fiction novel for young adults that I’m shopping around. And I have a few shorts coming out soon in various anthologies. Other than that, I’m just working on some new short fiction, before I dive headfirst into another novel project.
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