Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Nancy Kress

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Nancy Kress to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Ej-es.”

The story begins with a quote from the song “Jesse,” by Janis Ian. The quote fits so perfectly with the piece, I have to wonder which came first—your awareness of the song, or your creation of the story? How are the two connected?

Janis Ian and Mike Resnick conceived of an anthology of SF stories all based on Janis’s songs (Stars, published by DAW, 2003). They invited various authors to choose a song and write a story based on it. I chose “Jesse,” a romantic ballad, because I liked both tune and lyrics. In the debased version of English that this lost colony speaks, “Jesse” became “Ej-es.”

This piece is about a Corps of “medicians” providing medical relief around the galaxy. The Corps has a wonderful flavor that’s something between the Marines and the Peace Corps. What were you drawing upon when you created this organization? And how did you come up with word “medician”?

The Corps is based on USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. This group has joined (and sometimes waged turf wars with) the CDC in fighting epidemics in third-world countries; they also have shared jurisdiction, with FEMA and the CDC, for any bioterrorist attacks here (potential turf wars). I don’t recall where the word “medician” came from.

A major plot element is the clash between two different cultures and the ways they fail to understand each other. Were there particular real-life situations that you were thinking of when you wrote this piece?

No particular situation, but the clash of cultures is everywhere in our history, from Native American/European clashes to the failure of the Bush administration to understand the Arab culture of Iraq. This plot is also, of course, a long-standing staple of SF.

The title of the story comes from the language of the people living on Good Fortune. The language is very simplistic, almost babble-y. Are you the kind of writer that spends a lot of time researching and developing languages in your work, or do you work more intuitively?

One thing I wanted to do in “Ej-es” was play with language. The attentive reader learns enough of the colonists’ debased language (the result of a brain virus) to be able to read the last paragraph, which is entirely in the “alien” language. I worked intuitively on creating that language, which was possible only because it is so simple and “babbly.”

More than anything, this story hinges on Mia’s blinding need to find purpose in her life. Throughout the whole piece, she is deeply bothered by the new recruit’s question “Why did you first enter the Corps?” And the ending is her solution, her attempt to make a new and meaningful life. Is this a theme that you’ve worked with in your other works?

Yes. My most successful work, Beggars in Spain, is all about Leisha’s need to make sense of the world around her and her place in it. So have other of my stories, including every single one that has won an award. This is, I believe, the basic question of human life.

This story first appeared in 2003, in the Janis Ian-inspired anthology Stars, and then it was selected for The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21. Is there anything else we should know about this piece or that you’d like to add?

Halfway through writing “Ej-es,” I emailed Janis Ian to tell her that I had turned her ballad of love and longing into a story about a retro-virus in the brain. She emailed back, “How did you know?” A funny moment, if not exactly a funny piece of fiction.

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Wendy N. Wagner

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Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the forthcoming horror novel The Deer Kings (due out summer 2021) and the forthcoming gothic novella The Secret Skin (fall 2021). Previous work includes the SF thriller An Oath of Dogs and two novels for the Pathfinder Tales series. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in more than fifty venues. She also serves as the managing/senior editor of Lightspeed Magazine, previously served as the guest editor of Nightmare’s Queers Destroy Horror!, and is Nightmare‘s current editor-in-chief. She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family, two large cats, and a Muppet disguised as a dog.