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Interview: C.S.E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney is an artist whose talent is too large to be contained to one stage. A musician, poet, and storyteller, her writing has been described by readers as “wild” but she is a master craftsman, painstakingly choosing words to be wielded with surgical precision. Writing in a well–appointed garret in Rhode Island, her fairytales are dipped in seawater and wrapped in language so beautiful readers don’t realize until it’s too late that they’ve been flayed open with the most delicate of touches. Cooney won the 2011 Rhysling Award for “The Sea King’s Second Bride” and her works have appeared in numerous anthologies, including multiple appearances in The Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. A founding member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, she has launched an ambitious project to bring to life two EP’s of music created by Brimstone Rhine, a character who came to her in a dream. Whether spinning tales or making music, Cooney is an artistic whirlwind and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Uncanny Magazine: Like many Uncanny Magazine staff and contributors, you wear many hats. As a writer, poet, and musician, what makes on idea decidedly a short story while another is a song or poem? Is it a definitive or fluid decision and have you ever flipped an idea from one medium to another?

C.S.E. Cooney: That’s a great question. I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. I can say that what is now a novella called “The Two Paupers,”  the second book in my Dark Breakers series, started life as a one act play of the same name. The one act is, essentially, what became mere backstory for the two main characters in the novella, but the play was the genesis. I have a something called “Rust” that began as a poem, tried to be a play several times, and has desperately attempted to achieve storydom over a span of years. I don’t know what it wants to be in the end (NOVEL! NOVEL!), but I know it hasn’t stopped haunting me for years. Almost decades. It makes me cranky. I don’t know how to pummel it into shape. Yet.

What makes a poem? (There is a book called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that is worth the purchase price for the introduction alone, not to mention the chapter about “The White Heat ,” [by Emily Dickinson] and I daren’t try to answer the larger question here, but…) A poem is swallowable. A poem I can do because the moment demands it, and it only takes me a moment to do it. As compared, say, to a short story or novel.

A poem is a glorified Facebook update? Oh, gods. Don’t listen to me; I surely did not mean that. A poem is playful. It’s an exercise in structure and rhyme. It’s what I do because I cannot do crossword puzzles. It’s an expression of indignation or rage or desire almost in the same breath as the experience itself. It’s often a gift I can give a friend when I can’t afford a postage stamp. It’s sometimes a story.

But a story is something else. A story has room. A story I can stretch out in, and loll around, and do some ga–doinging and some jumping jacks and maybe even some galloping. Poetry is more about distilling the universe into a blood drop. Like squeezing my own quintessence into a barrel and throwing myself over the Niagara Falls. It’s a wild ride, and it might break me to pieces one of these days. 

But I still say fiction’s harder work. For me. I have to think about this some more. Ask me again in ten years. 

Uncanny Magazine: “Deep Bitch” is a very visceral poem, emanating a deep sense of power and knowledge. The language delves into the primal and earthy aspects of womanhood, playing with the idea of sublimation and the role we are forced to play. While it is lazy to default to saying a work feels personal (how could it not?) I can’t help but do so in this case. Where did this piece come from?

C.S.E. Cooney: “Deep Bitch” came out of a conversation I had with my friend Mir. A younger friend of mine was complaining fairly vocally that all the girls she knew were “shallow bitches.” And Mir said, very thoughtfully, “You know, I make it a point to befriend bitches. Not shallow bitches. Deep bitches.” It reminded me of something else she had said about how she had found her inner bitch in India. Sometimes she said “inner bitch.” Sometimes she said “inner tiger.” The two images melded.

My life is not a war zone or a collapsing coalmine. I may tightrope walk the poverty line, but I’ve never starved or lived without a roof over my head. I’m so steeped in privilege I’m not even aware of it 90 percent of the time. I think about humanity and how it has bent its head and barreled through ice ages and plagues and nuclear war and trips to the moon. I think about our ability to adapt and survive.

And I wonder, sometimes, what have I got to complain about? What, in my deepest self, is waiting for me at the bottom of all my complaints? When life becomes not about what is inconvenient or ego–bruising or mildly melancholy, but is instead about what might be a hard threat to my very existence. What is in me that might fight for my survival at the end of all things? And what is its opinion of the rest of my dreamy, distracted, cushy, complaining, highly–strung, sensitive, bitter, giddy, arrogant self?

I think my Deep Bitch would take a chunk out of me if I got too close to her. Just to wake me up. Or for spite. Or because she’d find it funny. But I’m glad to have her. I think she’s a fighter. She may not be a friend, but she’s on my side. An ally. At least an enemy of my enemies, should I ever find myself in the position of having some, if that makes sense?

My friend Elizabeth  Rannenberg brought my attention to “Self–Portrait” by Leonora Carrington, who often wrote and painted surreal scenes about the inner bitch, or in her case, hyena. It’s a beautiful painting. I’m supremely happy I didn’t see it until after I wrote “Deep Bitch” or I may not have thought it worth writing.

Uncanny Magazine: Your use of language is rich, borderline decadent. The words fill your mouth, roll around on the tongue and crash into teeth. In poetry, it’s not just words and their meaning, it’s the arrangement of words and how they bash into each other or twine together to create specific emotions. How do you apply this sensibility in your prose writing where the economy and use of language is much less constricted?

C.S.E. Cooney: You know, as a prose writer I’m not often very impressed with myself. I like reading books where the writing is plain and pointy, is fast and funny and sharp to the touch. The kind of writing that leaves breathless lightning impressions on the backs of your eyelids. Sparse. Spare. Spartan. The kind of writing you can’t help but read aloud.

You can’t tell it from the previous paragraph, but I have to work pretty hard to rein in my (cough) (splutter) (gag) lyrical tendencies. I’d rather be vicious. But I think to be truly vicious you have to have moments of great tenderness. I think chiaroscuro is the word of the hour. I think Shakespeare works so well because his poetry and vulgarity walk hand–in–hand. I think the plainer I can craft my prose, the more soaringly beautiful my poetic moments will become.

Unfortunately, every time I try to draw a straight line, it comes out all curlicues and Baroque superfluities and an excess of cherubs. I’ll get it right eventually. In the meantime, at least what comes out is interesting. And that’s maybe better than what I deserve.

Uncanny Magazine: Is environment important to your creative process? Do you think you’d be a different sort of writer if you were, for example, living on a ranch in Wyoming as opposed to a garret in Rhode Island?

C.S.E. Cooney: Certainly! But the kind of writer I wanted to be is a Rhode Island writer. I moved here deliberately after 10 years in Chicago and 20 years in Phoenix. I fell in love with this place the one time I visited when I was nine, and all my life have been working my way back.

I wanted to live at the edge of something. I wanted to live high up. I wanted to live within walking distance of the Atlantic. I wanted to live somewhere old and confusing. I wanted to live where there were ghosts all around. (I have seen my reflection in a mirror George Washington shaved in. I have climbed Bunker Hill. I mean!) I wanted to live in the kind of small town that Stephen King populates with sewer clowns and demented spiders, where the cultural differences are so vast and subtle from the homogenized concept I grew up thinking was “being American” that I’ll be parsing them for years.

I live with the smell of salt in the wind, and surprising winters, and springs and summers and falls so sweet I could bathe in the dream of them and wake up rosy and warm and clean. I wanted to be where the mermaids were. And the sharks. There’s something about this place I always wanted. Plus, I live right across the street from my library.

Uncanny Magazine: You said the idea for your latest project, Brimstone Rhine, came to you in a dream in the form of the eccentric eponymous artist who “when performing, wore only a black net veil and a pair of bright pink Superman underwear.” In starting with a very clear character, how did you flesh that out to encompass two EP’s of material and how, if at all, did the vision change or expand from dream to finished product?

C.S.E. Cooney: The first EP “The Headless Bride” I wrote as a joke. Can I write an EP in a day? Can I find a musician to set these lyrics to music in another day? Can we do a rough recording of all of them in a third day? Can we then tell the world we did this thing in THREE DAYS, and won’t the world be SO IMPRESSED? Yes? No.

That’s what I wanted: to see if I could. An experiment of vigor and velocity! But trying to wrangle musicians! No one seemed as excited as I was to do this thing, so what was the point?

For months the Brimstone Rhine project remained my private joke for myself, and a private sorrow too—that it would never see the light of day or the dark of a recording studio. I do what I do well enough, but narrowly. I’m trained as a singer, not as a musician. I don’t have a background in music theory or composition or sound engineering or any of the cool stuff that actually gets a music project off the ground. Poetry and prose? No problem. I don’t need anything but a writing desk and a bunch of dishes to do while I am in that fertile pre–writing procrastination mode. No one else interferes till the editing and publishing stage of the story.

Music? I needed a rockstar like Brimstone Rhine.

She was such a good dream—as eccentric as I could ever hope to be, only far more spiteful and mysterious and quite clearly a genius. I think the first EP, The Headless Bride, is more true to her aesthetic as I understood it in the dream, dark and slipstreamy and a bit nightmarish. She could just stand in the middle of a stage and hold people fiercely in her thrall.

The Alecto! Alecto! EP is more a thing that I would do—me, personally, not my imaginary rockstar friend—retelling myths for modernity, with a feminist twist and a cheeky grin. But more on that below, perhaps?

Uncanny Magazine: The Brimstone Rhine project is two EP’s, one of which, Alecto! Alecto!, features songs about women of Greek myth and legend. Why do you think these stories still resonate? How do they personally resonate with you?

C.S.E. Cooney: I think I first read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade. I forget the first time I saw Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version with the Harryhausen stop motion effects), though I do know that I often pretended to be Andromeda chained to a rock for the two years we lived in that house on Bloomfield with the swimming pool out back. It was in high school that I first grew indignant that Queen Dido had to burn. Around that era was also the first time I heard my best friend use the word “prick” as a noun rather than a verb: in a monologue from Lysistrata. I’ve loved the badass sorceresses Circe and Medea from the moment I met them—in myth and in theatre both—and I was always relieved, in the back of my mind, to know that Medusa had two immortal Gorgon sisters who couldn’t be beheaded with a hero’s sword, because that just sucked. What did she ever do to Perseus anyway? Bastard.

Why do these particular myths resonate with me? Is it the myths themselves, I wonder, or the myths I wanted them to be? I wanted Dido off that pyre. I wanted Medea to have something after the betrayal and exile and infanticide. I wanted an Alecto to worship beyond our fear. I wanted Lysistrata to call us all to arms again—or rather, to skin—to help us stop these never–ending wars. I wanted more songs about women. Women of power. Women of enchantment. Women exploring loss and lust, scheming for peace, taking the horizon for their playground.

Women are there in the myths, sure—but they’re often peripheral to some hero’s journey. I wanted to explore their journeys. But who am I kidding? Did I ever write a single song that was not also about myself?

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about your work with Uncanny Magazine!

Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 3

Welcome to the third installment of the Uncanny Magazine Podcast!

In Podcast Episode 3, you will hear:

Editors’ Intro: Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Short Fiction: “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J. Miller as read by C.S.E. Cooney
Poetry: After the Moon Princess Leaves by Isabel Yap as read by Amal El-Mohtar
Interview: Sam J. Miller interviewed by Deborah Stanish

This podcast was produced by Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky. Music created by Null Device and used with their permission.

You can subscribe at iTunes or with the RSS feed.

Age of the Geek, Baby

I’ve always identified as a geek and a nerd. I found refuge in the SF/F novels, comics, cartoons, movies, and TV shows I loved, and nothing felt better than bonding with other geeks over shared fandoms. I even met my husband because, as he put it in our first conversation, “You like Buffy.” So I was shocked the first time a friend said that they didn’t want to identify as a geek—after having a 50–odd comment thread of long, detailed, back and forth posts of friendly debate over the merits of Joss Whedon’s feminism, favorite X–Men, and why Batman rules.

When I asked why, they said that while they loved nerdy, geeky things, it was ironic how a community that was supposed to be based on shared experiences of being social outcasts wasn’t actually all that supportive of people who experienced marginalization for being a person of color, QUILTBAG, a woman, or a person with disabilities. They were disturbed by how often they saw the voices of POC dismissed when problematic racial tropes in comics were brought up, and how women were blamed when they talked about being harassed at a con, or were told it wasn’t a big deal receiving sexually violent threats while playing online MMOs.

To them, the word “nerd” meant “entitled straight white cisgender male.” To them, the word “geek” stood for “gatekeeping” and “exclusion.”

Geeks and nerds have come a long way in the thirty years since Revenge of the Nerds. As hacker–thief Alec Hardison often noted on Leverage, “It’s the Age of the Geek, baby. We run the world!” Comic book movies dominate the box office. Video games are a billion–dollar industry. San Diego Comic–Con is the Burning Man of annual media events, drawing over a hundred and thirty thousand attendees. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs are held as the ultimate examples of nerd success, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is the nerd equivalent of a rock star. Even Barbie is programming her own video game (albeit with questionable execution). Geek culture makes staggering amounts of money, and it is popular.

Yet the notion of nerds as social victims still holds sway. The Big Bang Theory has spent seven seasons making Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj the butt of every socially awkward nerd trope possible (even though they all have girlfriends, and enjoy successful jobs in their chosen fields). Brainy, pragmatic Alex Dunphy still reacts with horror to being called a nerd on Modern Family. Even Hardison’s teammates assume he was bullied as a kid because he had a Green Lantern action figure (interestingly, no one assumes he was ever bullied for being Black).

Not everyone experiences social penalties for flying their geek flag, but many geeks and nerds still bond over a shared sense of social isolation, whether it was being “forgotten” when it came to party invites and prom dates, or hiding the fact you spent your Friday night creating character sheets for your next D&D campaign. The common assumption is that geeks and nerds, being familiar with what it’s like to be treated as an outsider, would be empathetic with and welcoming toward other self–identified geeks. The dirty little secret of geekdom is that many of us have experienced some of the worst harassment and alienation at the hands of our own.

Gamergate, the “fake geek girl” issue, the fact that the need for anti–harassment policies is still a matter of debate, RaceFail ’09, the claim that progressives in SF/F are on a politically correct rampage, rants about cosplayers taking away attention from comics artists at cons—it seems geeks and nerds are perfectly willing to turn around and harass others right out of their communities for not being “the right kind of nerd” or “making waves.” Even more troubling is the notion that this sort of behavior is understandable because it’s just nerds and geeks being justifiably defensive because geek culture was their safe place, and it’s now being invaded by “all these new people.”

Of course, “all these new people” aren’t actually all that new to geek culture: POC, women, QUILTBAG people, and other minorities have always been a part of geek communities, although perhaps we’re more vocal now about our presence. Many of us know all too well the pain and loneliness that often came with being rejected as socially awkward nerds; we also know the sting of being marginalized, bullied and ostracized by other nerds, whether it was for being a woman, for being queer, for not being white, or for having a disability.

The victimization many nerds suffered for not fitting in, for being “too awkward,” or “too smart,” is very real. Unfortunately, so is the sense of entitlement and resentment that often stems from that pain. As Laurie Penny noted recently, it’s not uncommon for nerds who’ve experienced trauma to be “disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression.” One of the double–binds of having social privilege is that while it might not protect you from, say, being bullied as a boy who didn’t fit into a narrow definition of masculinity, you don’t need to recognize how male privilege works or know that you have it in order to benefit from it in the first place, because you live in a society that, by and large, has been built to default to people like you. It’s why the straight white cis male heroes of Revenge of the Nerds are supposed to universally represent nerds everywhere, but don’t actually succeed in doing so.

Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles recently explored the idea of “geek” and “nerd” as a “simulated ethnicity” in pop culture, providing an interesting framework for exploring why the “nerd as outsider victim” story—at least as it pertains to straight white cis male nerds—still holds sway in popular media, and how that narrative creates a false equivalence between social marginalization for being a nerd, and the institutionalized oppression experienced by minorities:

“…in the melodramatic mode, suffering, regardless of its source, equals moral superiority. It is through this process that the geek hero becomes a justified and superior protagonist in the face of all other identities and regardless of the politics surrounding the geek hero’s straight white maleness. The melodramatic mode allows the geek hero a niche in the politics of identity which lets him paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio–political system from which he benefits and, thus, be the ultimate protagonist with which audiences identify in a globalized, postmodern discourse.”

It begs the question: When some nerds claim to be part of an oppressed minority just because they’re nerds, regardless of the fact they’re playing on the lowest difficulty setting, what does that mean for those of us who are minorities within a minority?

Earlier this fall, 22–year–old Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by Sarasota Springs police officers while carrying a katana, possibly while cosplaying as Mugen from Samurai Champloo. When an indictment for the officers who shot Hunt failed to materialize a few weeks ago, someone posted the news in an online nerd community I frequent. The comments were overwhelmingly in favor of an indictment and lamented Hunt’s death. Several people wondered how much danger they would be in from police while cosplaying characters who carried swords, guns, and other weapons, and worried about their own safety. Some said to hell with the police and prejudice against cosplayers, they’d wear whatever they wanted because their costumes were awesome. A few questioned if carrying a weapon, cosplay accessory or not, in public was a smart idea in the first place. They all agreed that this was an issue that “affected ALL cosplayers.”

Every person commenting on that post was white. Not a single person mentioned the fact that Hunt was a Black man, and how race was an inescapable factor in the police reaction to Hunt’s possession of a cosplay sword. At a time when the protests over the lack of indictment for police in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner dominated the news, when #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe trended highly on social media, the absence of any acknowledgement that race played a part in Hunt’s death was glaring.

The silence of Black nerds and other nerds of color on that post spoke volumes.

It matters that, as Jay Rachel Edidin put it, “Geek is a gendered noun.” When the default assumption is that “geek” or “nerd” refers to men, it continues to promote the absurd notion that geeky women (and genderqueer people) are rare (we aren’t). It’s why I’ve always felt like I had to “prove my cred” by out–nerding every guy in the room as a pre–emptive measure, and why I used to think I couldn’t be femme and still fit in. While the idea that not a lot of women were geeks made me feel special and “not like other women,” it was also why I reacted to other geek women as if “there can be only one (in our social circle),” missing out on years of possible friendships because I was too busy playing “fake geek girl” gatekeeper. Turns out it’s pretty easy to internalize sexist norms when you pick up on the fact that you can’t be “too girly” if you want into the geek clubhouse.

The microaggressions marginalized people experience—being told “For a Black cosplayer (not to be racist) you did an incredible job,” getting “The Quiz” to prove you’re not a geek “just to get men’s attention” (while being appropriately attentive to men’s opinions and ideas)—are perceived as just a normal part of being in a geek community. It’s not as if anyone’s trying to grope your body or calling you an ethnic slur, right? Never mind how alienating it is to be an Asian woman listening to nerds bemoan being picked on by “that dudebro” at work for having Star Wars action figures at their desk, and in the same breath be told you’re making a big deal out of nothing because the Nemodians in Phantom Menace seemed pretty racist to you. (Also, so what if we didn’t see any female Rebel pilots? There were women coordinating the Rebel base in Empire Strikes Back, you know.)

If a straight white cis male geek can “paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio–political system from which he benefits,” then it’s possible to dismiss concerns that women are being pushed out of STEM fields because there’s no difference between nerds being made fun of for knowing how to code and the fact that girls and women are being told they just aren’t good at coding. It’s why white cosplayers can look at Hunt’s murder and say, “This is an issue that affects all cosplayers,” and not realize how it’s erasing the specific racial biases and institutional practices that contributed to Hunt’s death, and the risks Black people face just to enjoy cosplay. It’s why when women and genderqueer people speak about being threatened with sexual violence, stalking, and harassment, just for being visible while gaming, we’re often told, “It’s not sexism, men get trash-talked all the time, too.” It’s why a self–professed straight male gamer could claim that “BioWare neglected their main demographic: The Straight Male Gamer” by including same–sex romance options in Dragon Age 2, and why calls for ending the binary gender default in SF/F were treated as if it meant “The Cause” came before “Entertainment” (they’re not actually mutually exclusive).

The idea that nerds—regardless of intersecting axes of social privilege—are an oppressed social minority on a similar scale to POC, women, QUILTBAG people, and other marginalized groups short–circuits our ability to openly discuss the problems created by systemic bias and discrimination within geek culture, not to mention our ability to fix those problems. It makes our silence seem normal, so that when we share our perspectives, the distorted view is that we’re trying to dominate the conversation, when we’re just trying to be heard. When we’re told that geek culture used to be a safe place where (mostly straight white cis male) nerds could escape the confines of traditional masculinity and social convention, it elides the fact that for many of us, being around other self–professed geeks and nerds was never actually “safe” to begin with.

In this issue of Uncanny, Jim C. Hines has an excellent essay about the politics of fiction, in which he states that “All fiction is message fiction. All fiction is political.” In the Age of the Geek, the message that nerds can triumph in the face of social rejection, win popularity, and “get the girl,” is promoted as celebratory vindication for geeks and nerds everywhere. In a lot of ways, this is a true and comforting story about what it’s like to be a nerd or a geek these days. As Hines notes, however, it’s important to note whose comfort that message is intended for.

It’s a lot harder to feel excited about being a nerd when your gender means you’re often treated as a prize, a plot device, or a puzzle, not as a person; when fans argue if The Fantastic Four reboot is going to fail because Johnny Storm’s a Black man; or when your work as an author of color is honored with a statuette of a racist man’s head. The uncomfortable truth is that when nerds claim that they are the victims of a society in which they still benefit from privilege—by being white, heterosexual, cisgender, able–bodied, and/or men—geek culture ends up mirroring the same harmful social dynamics that many nerds, including minorities, seek refuge from in geek spaces. When you express concerns about how Firefly treats Asian cultures and are told, “Don’t make this a ‘race thing’ because we just want to have fun,” it becomes shockingly clear whose comfort takes precedence.

Being bullied hurts, regardless of who you are. The suffering and scars from those experiences are what created and sustains the narrative that we’re still the Rebel Alliance (even though we’re becoming the Empire). That trauma, however, doesn’t invalidate the systemic inequalities that exist and are harming people daily, even in geek culture and communities. In a similar way that “colorblind” ideology makes it possible to ignore institutionalized racism by focusing on individual actions rather than systems, and whitewashes cultural and ethnic identities by defaulting to the culturally dominant perspective—that of the straight white able–bodied cis manthe idea that geeks are socially oppressed erases our experiences of marginalization by other geeks, all in the name of geek solidarity.

We’re often drawn to stories, characters, and people because we find something in common with them, but empathy and connection aren’t reliant on a single, narrow axis of sameness. Many of my friendships began because of an overheard Spaceballs quote, or spotting dog–eared copies of Dune, or meeting every New Comic Book Wednesday at the local comic book shop. They’ve endured and deepened because of the rich differences and (sometimes challenging) perspectives we’ve brought to each other’s lives as multi–faceted individuals. I love characters and stories not just because they involve someone like me, but because they take what seems familiar and expand it beyond mere reflection, revealing depths and complexities outside my own perceptions.

What began with underdog geeks and nerds creating communities by sharing fandoms, hobbies, skills, and knowledge like secret passwords, hasn’t ended just because we’ve achieved mainstream success. It’s time to write the chapters where we don’t just revel in the power of that success, we use it to rectify the disparities that exist within geek culture. The story of the Age of the Geek should be one that reflects the full spectrum of our identities, and speaks to the truth of all of our experiences, even if those truths are uncomfortable ones.

So say we all.

The Politics of Comfort

Earlier this year, there was discussion about the Hugo Award ceremony and the need to keep politics out of the acceptance speeches. On the one hand, I can understand that. The last thing most of us want is a bunch of cranky authors getting on stage to sling mud and proclaim that their story stands for freedom, and everyone who voted for that other author WANTED THE FICTION TERRORISTS TO WIN!

It’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot: The need to keep politics out of science fiction and fantasy and to let people enjoy our stories for entertainment without having to drag politics into everything. We in the United States just got through midterm elections last month, and I can certainly understand the burnout on political ads and self–serving straw–man narratives. But despite what the campaign ads might suggest, politics isn’t just fearmongering and lies.

So many of our stories involve questions of power, whether that power is personal or supernatural or technological. Storytelling isn’t simply a matter of coming up with the next shiny idea. It’s looking at who benefits from that idea and who loses out. What struggles do you create with the introduction of magic or monsters or time travel or cloning? The moment J. K. Rowling began writing about witches and wizards, she also had to write about political conflict. How would the wizarding world be governed? Who gained from magic, and how? Those political power struggles are part of what made her series great.

Politics have always been an intrinsic part of our genre. They’re at the heart of science fiction and fantasy, and they’re an important piece of what make our stories work.

Frankenstein is often hailed as the first true science fiction novel, but where would that novel be without the political themes of power and alienation? Sylvia Bowerbank notes, “[t]he Creature confronts Victor with the twisted logic of mankind. He asks Victor why he should respect society’s laws which ‘would not call it murder’ to kill him because society classifies his life as an aberration.” Building a man out of spare parts is cool, but it’s the creature’s alienation and exile from the social order that makes Shelley’s novel a classic.

Look at our award–winners, our bestsellers, and you’ll find politics on every page. Lord of the Rings is an epic of war and the corruption that comes with power. It examines the cost of isolationism, the impact of war, the myth of the “true” king, and so on. Ender’s Game is built around the fear of the other, the importance of communication and empathy between cultures, and much more.

Sometimes the politics are obvious, such as the dystopian government of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, or the rugged individualism of Heinlein’s work. The sentiments in his quote, “An armed society is a polite society,” from Beyond This Horizon crop up in gun control debates to this day. Strip the politics from the stories, and you’re left with a hollow cocoon.

So what does it mean when we read yet another call for everyone to stop polluting and destroying the genre with politics? Most of the time, what these calls really seem to want is for politics to be invisible and unobtrusive. “Obtrusive” generally means one of three things:

  1. Clumsy writing. A poorly–written story will bounce just about anyone out of the book. Politics is one thing. Badly–written politics will smack you like a two–by–four.  But that’s not a complaint about politics. It’s just a call for better writing.
  2. Politics that challenge the dominant culture. As readers, we’re far more likely to notice things that question the assumptions and standards of our society. When Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss on television back in November 1968, the politics of that scene were obvious to everyone because it challenged what we thought of as “normal.” But how many people questioned the politics of the United Federation of Planets’ flagship being helmed by a white man from middle America?
  3. Politics we disagree with. We generally have an easier time accepting stories that reinforce our own political beliefs. This isn’t generally a matter of hypocrisy or attempted censorship; it’s that our own unexamined politics are far more likely to be invisible to us. “That’s not political; it’s just the way the world should be.”

In January of 2014, Alex Dally MacFarlane issued a call for the end to the default of binary gender in SF/F. Not the end of binary gender; merely a call to move beyond that unthinking default. This led to a number of arguments and discussions, with some authors proclaiming it was a mistake to put the message ahead of the story, and anyone following MacFarlane’s advice would end up writing politically preachy, second–rate fiction.

Thus missing the point that all fiction is message fiction. All fiction is political. What these people were resisting wasn’t the inclusion of politics in fiction; it was the inclusion of politics that challenged both the dominant assumptions of our society and their personal opinions of what was “right” and “normal.”

There’s no such thing as pure entertainment, and I say that as someone who wrote a story about a muppet–eating werewolf. What “entertainment without politics” means is “entertainment that regurgitates the norm and doesn’t challenge my assumptions in any way.”

Ours is the genre of “What if?” and “If this goes on…” In order to explore the possibilities of other worlds, we must acknowledge the realities of our own. In order to imagine the future, we must recognize the complexities of the present.

I understand the allure of comfort fiction, but how comforting can it truly be to read stories of a future in which your culture and people have disappeared from the universe? How entertaining is it to read yet another fantasy set in a meticulously researched analogue of our own history…with the exception of the total and inexplicable erasure of people like you?

When Ann Leckie chose to write about a protagonist from a genderless society in Ancillary Justice, that was a political choice. So was Jim Butcher’s choice to write Harry Dresden as a straight white male. Neither of those choices is automatically Right or Wrong, and I’ve enjoyed both authors’ work. But let’s not pretend one is a political statement while the other is “normal.”

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, she talked about the need for “voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear–stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

Our genre is amazing. We imagine the futures of our species and the possibilities of other worlds, other forms of life, other realities. We’ve inspired scientists and artists and explorers. Story is powerful. It’s also political, whether we like it or not. It has been for as long as our genre has existed. That’s part of what makes the best of our genre and our stories so powerful, and so important.

(Editors’ Note: Jim C. Hines is interviewed by Michi Trota in The Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 4.)

After the Dance

We don’t talk
about the ninth,
the quiet one,
who followed us down the slick dark steps,
who always drank the silver wine.

We don’t talk
about the men
of how they held her
in cold cold hands.

We don’t  talk
about the blood
that dried in patterns
on her skin.

We don’t talk
about the boats,
the cold and shaking
silver boats.

We don’t talk
about the way
she brought her wrist
to her mouth.

We don’t talk
about the flecks
of metal shining
through her scars.

We don’t talk
about the trees
those dancing, silvered
shadowed trees.

We don’t talk
about the night
she slipped off in the cold cold wind,
her feet bare against the slick slick stones.

We don’t talk
about the dance
that was to bring her
to her prince.

Shadowed, she is
our sister still,
and we don’t talk.
We don’t.

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After the Moon Princess Leaves

We walk around our house for days with an emptiness
that sings in our bones. Otousan gathers the pale feathers
she discarded and we weep over them at dinner,
rice too wet in our dry mouths. I spread my hands
over her silk robe and remember the same strange ache
I felt, hefting her naked baby body over my shoulder.
We nail her note to our door so that her script
can comfort us. I taught her that, Otousan says,
fingers skimming the characters for goodbye.
We see the emperor’s smoke rising from the mountain:
burnt words, offerings of ash to the moon. We quiver,
but he’s already alone; it’s punishment enough. Now
always the stars remind me of the tears tracing down
our alien daughter’s face. Why did we think
our love could keep her? I pull the weeds
in our garden, I pull the grass. I make rice.
Otousan kisses my cheek and burns her note,
her feathers; burns her robe, to forget we are
forgotten. He takes his blade and walks
through the forest, whistling, listening
for a child’s cry. Slicing bamboo, watching
their fragile bodies bend and break, scattering light.

(Editors’ Note: “After the Moon Princess Leaves” is read by Amal El–Mohtar in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 3.)

Interview: Hao Jingfang

Uncanny Magazine is thrilled to bring you Hao Jingfang’s haunting story “Folding Beijing.” Translated by Ken Liu, Hao’s story touches on universal themes of love, loss, and family, all while turning an unflinching gaze towards issues of class and population. Since winning first prize in the New Concept Writing Competition in 2002, Hao has published two full–length novels, cultural essays, and many short stories. A selection of her earlier works was published in 2011’s Star Travellers, a collection featuring 14 novellas written between 2005 and 2010. Her short story, “Invisible Planets,” also translated by Liu, was published in Lightspeed’s December 2013 issue. With degrees in physics, economics, and management, the temptation to classify Hao as a hard science or political writer is hard to resist. While she may wrap her stories in an astonishing exterior of scientific theory, Hao brings a lightness and poignancy to her characters and their worlds that defy simple labeling. Ultimately, Hao’s work will make you look at the world a bit differently and, really, that is the highest compliment a reader can bestow upon a writer. We hope to see more of Hao’s work in the future.

Uncanny Magazine: Lao Dao is an honorable man who recognizes the inequity of his situation. Yet, this isn’t a grand, sweeping story of rebellion; its heart is much more quiet and personal. In genre fiction, where the idea of dismantling injustice is often a major theme, what made you focus the story on a man’s simple quest to provide a better life for his daughter instead?

Hao Jingfang: It’s precisely because political rebellion is such a clichéd theme in SF that I decided not to go down that route.

In my story, the unjustness of the world is a part of the background, not a characteristic of some group. The world of the story is unjust, but no individual is the source of the injustice; everyone is simply playing a role. Like a group of actors enacting some drama on a tilted stage, they suffer, celebrate, rage, jubilate, but don’t resist the tilted nature of the stage, which is perceptible only to the audience. The unfairness of the world is revealed for readers, who exist independent of the story, not for the characters. The characters themselves care more about things that touch their daily lives: family, love, power, and wealth, but a reader can see the fundamental inequity of their world.

I chose to write this way because I wanted to reflect on our reality. The lives of the vast majority of people play out like stories full of ups and downs, but few ask how these stories reveal the structure of the world. Most people care only about the details of their individual lives: family, love, power, and wealth, and few examine the framework of the world as a whole. The structure of the real world, of course, is also unfair and unjust, like the world in the story, and in fact the real social pyramid may be even more extreme than the one portrayed in my tale. Only someone who can take the perspective of a reader of the world, standing apart from the emotional experience of individuals, can perceive this structural framework. I wanted to reveal this perspective.

And, what do we do with this revelation? I wasn’t trying to answer this question. Any informed observer can tell that in a rapidly developing society like contemporary China, disparities of wealth and status are growing wider, faster, but no one has a good solution to the problem. During the last century, multiple attempts at creating fairer, more equal societies stalled. Putting aside the benefits and harms of socialism for the moment, even in the most free and democratic country, the Occupy Wall Street movement ended up accomplishing very little. I think it means a more profound problem is present in the human condition, hinting at an eternal dilemma that will always be with us. A short story can’t resolve such questions.

Beijing is a megacity whose scale defies the imagination of many. In this city, individual existence is easily engulfed by the world’s forbidding structure. I just wanted to show that.

Uncanny Magazine: “Folding Beijing” is a complicated story that meshes physics, economics, and class systems, yet is it is framed by wonderful domestic details. Descriptions of food and clothing are given as much attention as genre elements. Why did you think it important to include these details in your story?

Hao Jingfang: A science fiction story must first be a good story. “Science fiction” is an attribute, but not the essence. A good story must move the reader. Well–chosen details are required to absorb the reader in a new scenario, to make the reader believe it. A science fiction story can’t just rely on some novel premise; no matter how exquisite the premise, without the details that give it vitality, it is nothing but a good idea, a seed for a story. Details are the lifeblood of fiction.

Uncanny Magazine: The banquet scene in “Folding Beijing” is particularly poignant. Lao Dao discovers that his world, which his father helped create, is invisible to those in First Space. We also see Lao Ge’s “boss” dismiss a proposal that would eliminate the need for Third Space workers, illustrating a curious mix of problematic compassion and patriarchy. Yet he later delays The Change with a sense of privilege and callous disregard for those outside of his space. Do you see these conflicting ideals continuing or will one set win out over the other as the next generation comes into power?

Hao Jingfang: The description of the banquet draws on some of my personal experiences. For professional reasons and out of my own interest, I attended multiple economic conferences: Some of them were closed–door small sessions; others were large forums related to integrated policies. At these conferences and forums, I witnessed scenes similar to the one in my story, and one of the strongest impressions they left me is a sense that the bright, glowing figures shaping policy live in a completely different world from those toiling at the base of the pyramid. The policy–makers know of the existence of the lowly, but they can’t see them. For those with the power to shift the course of the country, the little people are just numbers in a spreadsheet.

When the powerful discuss economic policy, they could transform the fate of millions with a single thought, and there are often difficult choices. At one conference having to do with environmental management, I heard a discussion similar to the problem in my story: someone suggested automatically sorting Beijing’s trash, and one of the officials replied that Beijing’s trash was all shipped to a particular place in Hebei Province, where it provided tens of thousands of jobs. If technology replaced the need for these jobs, how would the poor who depended on the stream of trash make a living?

The high–level officials in real life often act like the “boss” in my story: They try to plot a middle course between multiple policies, balancing competing interests and futures, and demonstrating apparent compassion. In fact, however, they see the people at the base of the social pyramid as abstractions, fungible numbers that could be shifted from one column to another. A recent example is Beijing’s attempt to manage the growing population and deteriorating environment by administratively resettling many of the poorest people outside of the city.

This mix of compassion and indifference is a characteristic of the “paternalistic” government style that is a part of China’s history and tradition. It has been present in Chinese governments for thousands of years, and it will continue to be present in the foreseeable future.

Uncanny Magazine: As I mentioned, this story meshes the incredible physics involved in creating The Change, but also the very real economic reasons behind it. You have degrees in both physics and economics and management. In writing this story, what element came first: How to deal with the economic reality of over-population or the physical concept of creating the folding worlds?

Hao Jingfang: It began with an image. One morning, I was shopping at a street market just like the one described at the start of the story: Crowded, chaotic, dirty, lively, full of cheap goods piled up everywhere. Everyone was devoted to the task of bargaining.

I thought then that Beijing was a city divided into multiple groups who did not interact at all in daily life. They had completely different lifestyles, habits, and socializing spaces—in fact, they rarely even met.

My friends and I belonged to Second Space. Due to some measure of talent and luck, we had good educations and comfortable jobs, and we could see the results of our efforts and dream of advancement. But this city also had two other groups we usually didn’t get to see. One group consisted of the mysterious, powerful figures who were rarely seen in public but who could decide the fate of the city, even the entire country. The other group consisted of the laborers who lived in the nooks and crannies and borders of the city. They didn’t have the money to shop at the places we frequented—indeed, they couldn’t even afford to come to where we lived; yet, they, in their multitudes, supported the functioning of this giant city.

The image from that morning spun out into a whole story: The economic reality was the logical engine, and the physical concept animated the image.

Uncanny Magazine: We are seeing a surge of interest in translated SF/F fiction and fiction outside of the western culture. Has this, in any way, affected how you approach your work? As a writer who has had her fiction translated for the western market, what challenges and opportunities have you encountered?

Hao Jingfang: Translated fiction provides me with a great deal of help and inspiration. I began writing science fiction because reading translated fiction showed me wonders and opened up new worlds. In the last couple of years, I’ve really enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s novels, which are full of imagination, keen observations, and delicate emotions.

I’m glad to see the Anglophone world taking an interest in Chinese science fiction. So far, I’ve only had two stories translated, barely dipping my toes, and so I can’t yet say I’m a part of the western science fiction market. For me, the interest western readers take in Chinese fiction presents an opportunity, but the challenge is that I don’t know if western readers will like the style of Chinese fiction.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers and giving Uncanny readers insight into this wonderful story. And thank you to Ken Liu for his work in translating both the interview questions and Hao Jingfang’s responses.

Interview: Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is a hurricane in a ballgown, a woman who spent a year saying “Yes” and writer who can spin truth into fairytales. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award–nominated short fiction has graced the pages of top SF/F publications and has been consistently featured in “Year’s Best of” anthologies. Her 2006 best selling memoir The Year of Yes was followed by a dark fantasy/alt–history novel (Queen of Kings); a co–edited anthology with Neil Gaiman (Unnatural Creatures); a novella, co–written with Kat Howard (The End of the Sentence), and a soon–to–be published YA novel Magonia (HarperCollins, 2015). She collects ideas and nuggets of fact, carefully hoarding them in a secret file of curiosities until they are ready to be polished into something magical. Her stories make you believe in the world you can only see out of the corner of your eye. But be careful if you’re offered a drink as you may be getting more than you bargained for. To learn more about Headley, visit her website at www.mariadahvanaheadley.com.

Editor’s Note: Headley provided photos to illustrate this interview. However, due to copyright issues we can only provide links to the websites featuring the photos. Do take a few moments to click—the facts behind this story are fascinating. Warning: Uncanny Magazine is not responsible for the hours that will be lost following this link trail!

Uncanny Magazine: “If You Were A Tiger, I’d Have To Wear White” is a wildly fantastical story peppered with real people, places, and history. What factual nugget first caught your attention and inspired you to spin this into a debauched fairytale?

Maria Dahvana Headley: It was the Mabel Stark part of it that first grabbed me—for those who don’t know, Mabel Stark was a real person. She had a checkered history, almost all of which is accurately depicted in the story. She was a wildcat trainer for over 50 years, was Mae West’s double in I’m No Angel, worked until she was 79, trained dozens of tigers, and was tremendously eccentric. She really did wear a custom–made white leather suit so that certain feline, um, raptures would look like mauling to the audience.

Photo Links:
Mae West and Mabel Stark, 1933
Mabel Stark at Jungleland with Satan the Tiger (really), 1967

I’m not sure how this happened exactly, but somehow my editor/collaborator boy and I were deep in another discussion and he said “It’s like the tiger lady and her sponge–cleanable white leather suit…” How had I not heard of this?! He showed me. I screamed. I thought of the title for this story, and then we both screamed, because it was clearly a story that needed writing. It started out being only about Stark and her tigers, but then I researched her later years at Jungleland and it grew into this half Jungle Book, half broken Hollywood fairy tale situation. Mr. Ed really lived there. So did all of the MGM lions, until 1969. I went pretty deep to find accounts of everything in this story—various anecdotes by children who went to Jungleland in the 50s, old circus brochures, the specifics of the auction that sold off the animals, and the various woeful overdose deaths of Mabel Stark, Bamboo Harvester (the horse actor that played Mr. Ed)…yeah. Also, there’s a lot of photographic evidence of the amazing weirdness of the place. It actually was a kind of retirement home for animal actors. Gable and Garbo really visited. The photos I describe in the story are real, though their context is not!

Photo Links:
Greta Garbo and Leo the MGM Lion, 1926, Jungleland
Clark Gable at Jungleland with lion cubs, 1946

So, there’s the real stuff, the history…the debauched fairytale aspects came from me, obviously. Those are because I (of course) adore Angela Carter. The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, well, they’re both obviously part of what got me going into this story. Carter is so dark and hot and strange, I wanted to do a riff like that, set in the late 60s, with black humor mixed into longing for a lost world, which frankly is exactly what was happening in the late 60s anyway. The back to the land situation, flower children—that’s always sounded very Ovidian. And so this is a bit Ovidian too.

Here’s what I usually hate about Beauty and the Beast: The Beast so often has to transform into a handsome human prince in order to stay involved with Beauty. Why? Fuck that transformation. The Beast stays beast in my versions of this kind of story (also in The End of the Sentence, which Kat Howard and I wrote together). Humans are beasts too. We’re ALL bloody beasts, damn it! (Forgive me while I hop onto my soapbox regarding not giving a damn about commercialized standardized prettiness.) I don’t think we have to be the same to love one another. (Note: I don’t literally think love affairs with tigers and lions are a good idea for humans either…) So I always want to write stories where the beasts stay themselves and wherein love is as complicated and beastly and bewildering and between opposites as, well, love is.

In The Tiger’s Bride, Beauty transforms. Here, no one does. Everyone is what they are, albeit all the animals are talkative. It’s an experiment. Sidebar: I love lost world stories and in this case, a retirement home for animal actors meant that I could have all these animal actors in a kind of surreal Sunset Boulevard scenario, lamenting the loss of their previous golden age fairy tale, even as Hollywood changed too. Now Jungleland is a shopping mall, and actors like Garbo and Gable? Come on. But this story is inspired by one part Angela Carter, one part Kipling. The third part, what can I tell you? That’s my own skewed head.

Uncanny Magazine: It is fascinating to see the layers of storytelling in this tale unfold and build upon each other. With so many powerful characters and intriguing stories, how did you decide upon the narrator and framework?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I was obsessing on the notion of the hostile subject. The infamous Esquire Magazine Gay Talese profile of Sinatra “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was written at around the same time Jungleland got auctioned down to the dirt. Talese, of course, never managed to interview Sinatra, but he wrote a powerful piece of narrative nonfiction about the man’s outlines nonetheless. I’m not sure how I started thinking that the MGM lions were like the Sinatras of Jungleland, they’re the Kings and famous only for their roars, after all, (though I suppose I could’ve made this an Elvis and Graceland story). But I did, and that’s how I got here. I wanted an outsider to tell us about the place because an insider in Jungleland would be too focused on their own role in the place’s history.

You’re right: there were so many stories at Jungleland. I wanted to be able to touch on as many as I could. I was already doing the research a reporter would and bringing a struggling reporter in as my narrator made that a bit easier. And I love that kind of classic Hollywood trope, the young reporter investigating with an inexperienced–yet–jaundiced eye, and finding something much deeper than he’d imagined. I like loss of innocence stories too, apparently. The world is wide. There are such fucking astonishing things in it. You don’t even have to dig very far down.

Uncanny Magazine: There is an underlying theme of commercialism and exploitation in this story—what the characters, both human and animal, will do for their craft, for fame and to stay relevant. As an artist do you feel a kinship to the circus atmosphere of Jungleland? Is there ever a struggle to reconcile your art with “business”?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Hmm, I guess I don’t really see a massive difference between “art” and “business.” I’ve been allowed to be a tattooed lady dressed in spangles for years, and to also be the circus girl who gets invited to parties in the mainstream world where socialites show me their own tiger tattoos, frankly.

Otherwise, I’m lucky to have a mind that has typically been quite willing to think up stories that have a gettable hook, while being very odd in content nonetheless. So, that’s fortunate in business terms! My Glitter & Mayhem story, “Such & Such Said to So & So,” was, for example, a police detective noir with talking animals and sentient cocktails, but I just described it as a story about a nightclub in which the cocktails came alive. Anyone who’s ever liked a drink too much understands the dangers of a seductive cocktail. I try to ground my bizarre plots in known boilerplate truths of human society: Here it’s “You fall for someone everyone else thinks is wrong for you, and it has to be kept secret.” But my most recent project, the YA novel Magonia, is Earth girl ends up on a sailing ship in a sky kingdom. I wrote it in a frenzy, simply because it was what I wanted to write. When I sold it, the publisher, HarperCollins, apparently had a meeting in which they declared it the weirdest, but also that they didn’t care that it was weird, and that it was coming home with them. My feeling is that you just have to be able to quickly convince readers that they want to live in your world. I think it helps, of course, to be able to boil something seemingly crazy down into an appealing one–liner. I learned that from writing screenplays and plays back in my first career.

I’d love to make lots more money, and I suppose if I wrote straight commercial things—particularly screenplays, maybe I could? But who knows? I think Hollywood wouldn’t be inclined to make “If You Were A Tiger,” into a movie even though it’s all about Hollywood! I only like inventing when my inventions startle me by exploding, though, and so, here I am. 

Uncanny Magazine: This story is evocative of both Golden Era Hollywood and Hunter S. Thompson–inspired Gonzo Journalism. If you could to be whisked back in time, which era would you choose to live and why?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I like this time, despite everything that is broken about it. Insulin–dependent diabetic that I am I really like being able to have insulin, which has only been around for roughly the last 100 years. Before that you’d just die of diabetes. I like the internet, and the universe at the touch of a fingertip. I’m a gobbler of glories and to live in this moment in history means that the glories are right there for the taking in terms of thousands of years of art and words. How could I find better? The internet equalizes information access in a way we’ve never had before. I think about this particularly because I grew up broke in a rural area of Idaho, and were I to live in another time, I’d be more likely to end up without status in a place without access to arcane information, rather than hitting some kind of class jackpot and getting to hang out in the Library of Alexandria, able to read all the texts in all the languages. Besides, I can write myself into other times. That’s part of what’s great about being a writer. You can imagine yourself into all sorts of places. But the places I imagine are full of fantastical elements, so they’re better to imagine than to live in, I have no doubt.

Of course I’d like to have a visit to Elizabethan England to see the first performance of The Tempest, but if I was whisked there and was me, a thirty–something woman, I’d most likely be very busy running around wrangling pigs and small children. Truth is that throughout a lot of human history, no matter what my brain was like, I’d look like a woman undeserving of knowledge. I realize that to lots of people all over the world, women still look that way, and it makes me furious. I guess the good news if I’d time traveled is that maybe I could have fought for earlier access to the vote/education/reproductive rights for women. But then I’d not likely have had time to write.

Uncanny Magazine: “If You Were A Tiger, I’d Have To Wear White” is set in the recent past. The recently released novella The End of the Sentence, co–authored with Kat Howard, also has a contemporary setting. As a SF/F writer, are you more attracted to stories set in our very recognizable world or world–building your own universe? Do you find one to be easier than the other?

Maria Dahvana Headley: If there’s an equivalent, it’s that I’m a mixologist. I like to tilt our world ‘til three parts of it spill out, and then pour in three shots worth of something else entirely, some bitters, some sugar, and shake it. I usually want our known surroundings in there as the main ingredient, though, by which I mean, most of my stuff takes place on Earth, in human history somewhere. Even “Dim Sun,” which was in Women Destroy Science Fiction, and is set in a sort of Douglas Adams–y outer space, goes deep into the memories of the characters and their time on an odd version of Earth. I love grabbing and scrambling history from deeper than the last 100 years, of course: Classical Rome, 19th century Germany. I’ve done both of those.

The people I know who invent entire worlds, they rock my brain. It’s like they’ve made a new kind of whiskey out of some astral ingredient. I don’t know how they do what they do. Even though I do some alternate world–building myself in things like Magonia, I’m so attached to Earth, to its oddities, to its tender strangenesses, to its particular flaws, pains, and glories.

I was just reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and I tweeted that it was like a book–length version of my favorite part of Our Town, the speech when a newly–dead Emily Webb says good–bye to everything in her living world. That speech takes me down (who am I kidding—the whole play gets more genius every year older I get) because it’s the common things she’s listing: It’s clocks ticking, it’s coffee. Everything I write has a little of that in it because I first read it when I was 15 or so and it hit me hard. I look at Our Town now, and of course, it’s a fantasy. It has ghosts and a Stage Manager narrating life as it goes along. It’s marketed as being naturalistic, but it’s totally stylized fantasy, set on earth, amongst humans. So, that’s one of my touchstones.

I could probably keep diagramming the wonders of this world forever and then garnishing them with almosts and maybes and I wishes. I mean, in this story Siberian tigers named Satan are both animal show performers and famous for acting in Chekhov’s plays. So, clearly? I muddled our known world together with some talking tiger liqueur and some Russian bitters.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for chatting with Uncanny Magazine and sharing the fascinating photos and links related to your amazing story!

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