How did “Contracting Iris” originate? What inspirations did you draw on?
The story originated with a buddy of mine, Steven Archer. He’s something of a polymath: half of the darkwave duo Ego Likeness (the other half is Donna Lynch, whose name should be familiar to anyone who follows the Stokers); an artist (paintings, graphic novels, weird-ass props for his videos, he’s even getting into video production for other artists—you can see his handiwork all over the recent “Uroboros” video from the Alan Parsons Project—bit.ly/3l9DxUg). He’s written a children’s book. He’s worked with NASA. He’s not selling out Shea Stadium any time soon but the dude is everywhere, if you know where to look.
One of Steve’s solo projects is Stoneburner (named, yes, after the tech from Dune), which is a kind of ongoing experiment in industrial-grunge electronica. (He describes it as “what dance music might be like on Arrakis.”) A while back, working on Stoneburner’s “Apex Predator” album, he drops me an email: “So I wrote this song about a disease and a girl both called Iris . . . it’s 700 angstroms, and appears as a green and gold cloud which seeds the atmosphere making it rain. I also don’t know why it’s called Iris.”
He asks if I wanted to base a story on it, maybe as some kind of online bonus content hidden in a puzzle built into the album. I check out the lyrics—here’s a taste—
I am always sight unseen
Exchange the facts for faith
Contracts the pack
The culture blinding
And in the cold and distant sky iris is rising
—and I say Fuck yeah. So here we are.
What is your writing process like?
Depends on the form. If I’m writing a short story, I like to plan everything out in advance and then write from the bullet points; there’s not so much wiggle room when you’re writing against a maximum word count. If I’m writing a novel I also like to plan everything out in advance and write from the bullet points, with the difference that I generally get maybe two-thirds of the way through and realize that two or more of my bullet points conflict with each other and the entire house of cards is gonna collapse and how was I too stupid to see that until now? At which point I have to retcon and rezone and basically fly by the seat of my pants until it all works out. (Or doesn’t. Depending on the title. You’d have to ask my readers.)
Did “Iris” fit that pattern?
It may have fit the pattern in terms of the construction flowchart. Where it diverged was in the original inspiration.
Back in the old days I had endless degrees of freedom. I’d base my stories on whatever cool idea happened to float into my brain after reading some paper or waking from a dream. After a while people started coming to me for contributions to themed anthologies; I could still incorporate pop-sci and dreamscapes, but they had to be in service to stories about robots or “future Toronto” or “aliens that live inside your nose.” Probably the most extreme such constraint was when I was commissioned to novelize a video game that had been plotted out entirely by someone else.
“Contracting Iris” clearly falls into the writing-to-someone-else’s-theme category, but Steve’s lyrics were way more open-ended than they had any right to be. He had an extraterrestrial microbe in mind when he wrote the song, but the lyrics were long on impressionistic imagery and short on specifics. It was more of a Rorschach blot than a blueprint.
So I took those impressions and wedded them to my specifics. Steve was content to let his work serve as a springboard and back off. I kept him semi-posted on my thoughts as the biology developed but he never once said You gotta get Ancient Astronauts in there somehow or Iris has to be a dental hygienist. There was virtually no creative interaction once he said Wanna? and I said Yes! Yet somehow, this story feels more like a true collaboration than the actual collaborations I’ve been part of.
Did you get stuck at any point while writing this?
I guess my major misgiving was the story’s essential subject. Songs are one thing, but stories about self-usurping parasites have been done to death since Bradbury kicked it all off in the forties. Think Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters; think Silverberg’s Passengers; think an entire cottage industry of Star Trek episodes and movies with the term “body snatcher” in their titles. Do I really have anything new to say on the subject? Does anyone?
How did you get past that?
I don’t know if I ever did. “Contracting Iris” definitely has its own Wattsian spin. The “science,” such as it is, is updated. The whole body-horror/infection theme becomes freshly relevant in a world where zoonotic outbreaks have quadrupled since the seventies, where pandemics are the New Normal, where we’ve only identified (much less developed countermeasures for) about one percent of the microbes that could make a meal of us. And of course, the microbe is only half the story; the other half is the creatures it inhabits. The same bug could appear in a thousand tales, and if the people in each are unique then the tales will be too.
Ultimately, though, the song remains the same; it’s the venue, the audience that changes. There’s nothing truly groundbreaking about “Iris.” It’s just the latest variation on a venerable theme, and that’s totally okay. Even Shakespeare stole from his predecessors.
(Not that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare, mind you. I’d much rather be compared to Brunner.)
Where are you in this story?
I guess I’m in Yasur. And maybe the giant squid at the end.
What are you reading lately?
One of my oft-repeated complaints during these interviews is that somehow, in the process of becoming a full-time SF author, I stopped reading SF for fun. Right up to grad school I was ploughing through a few novels a week; these days I actually feel guilty curling up with a good book because there are so many other things I should be doing, and if you don’t hate what you’re doing it’s obviously not important (I was raised by Baptists).
I’ve recently taken to forcing myself to read for fun every morning between the time my wife leaves for work and the time she gets there, which gets me maybe a couple hours pleasure reading a week. Other than that, though, my current reading largely comes down to titles that people have pushed in front of me in hopes of blurbage—and there’ve been a few this year that really stuck out for me. One is Leech, by Hiron Ennes: “a gothic far-future bioclockpunk novel from the POV of a parasitic hive mind.”
Another is Rachel Rosen’s Cascade, out of a Canadian small press with the unlikely name of “Bumblepuppy.” That one has ecological collapse, Canadian realpolitik, and wizards on retainer to the civil service. I wrote several blurbs for that one; the one I’ll quote here is “Finally, something to make the hopepunks shut the fuck up,” but I don’t know how widely they used it.
Both those books are in stores even as we speak. But I’ve also recently blurbed a monster of a novel by a dude named Seth Dickinson (you may have heard of him), and it’s still in press.
I literally squirmed in horrified revulsion when I read parts of this novel. In other parts my mind exploded, in still others I wobbled almost unto tears. (I’m generally a very unemotional guy, immune to the wobblies for anything short of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Norris chest-chomper scene from The Thing.) Right out of the gate—second, maybe third chapter—the dude presents a whole new rationale for Free Will in the context of digital physics. And he’s just getting started.
Last I heard, many thousands of words had to be flensed away to satisfy some bean-counting algorithm, so I don’t know what the final word count will weigh in at. But I weep for the loss of a single paragraph.
The book is Exordia. Keep an eye out.
Spread the word!