I spoke with this year's winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Meg Elison, for my 18th podcast on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was easy breezy to talk to, with smart quick answers that, in my humble opinion, made for a great interview. Of course, it helps that her book tackles all kinds of rich subjects: gender inequality (exacerbated by an epidemic that kills far more women than men), reproductive rights, and a need for meaningful emotional and intellectual stimulation in a world sorely lacking both. Below is what I wrote to introduce the podcast.
Despite the odds, Meg Elison did it.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is set in the American West after an epidemic has killed all but a fraction of humanity. Among the survivors, men vastly outnumber women, setting in motion a desperate journey of survival for the eponymous midwife. To avoid the serial rape and enslavement that threatens all females in this male-dominated landscape, the midwife sheds her name and even her sexuality, presenting herself as a man and continuously changing her moniker to suit the circumstance.
Communication falls apart too quickly for anyone to even know the name or nature of the illness that's destroyed civilization and made childbirth a fatal event for female survivors. The midwife's focus is on giving the few women she meets the hard-won power to prevent pregnancy. "I think the thing I wanted to come across most strongly was to explode notions of gender... And to really think about what your options would be like if you, like your grandmother, had no control over when you had children or how or by whom," Elison says in her New Books interview.
Elison was raised on stories about the apocalypse--the fire and brimstone kind. "I grew up in some pretty crazy evangelical churches, and they hammered on us about the end of days and the Book of Revelation, and it gave me nightmares, and it made always think about the fact that the end was nigh and that it was going to be bad, and I think that stuck with me my whole life even though I shed the ideological parts of it."
For the midwife, the apocalypse poses threats both dramatic and mundane. When not searching for food and a safe place to spend the night, she must negotiate the frustrating reality of spending time with people she doesn't like. "I started thinking about what it would be like if the only people you could find were people you couldn't stand, if they just irritated in you every way," Elison says. "There's nothing wrong with them and they're not unsafe, you just don't like being there. So I wanted to make a character who had to make choices between feeling safe in a group of people and feeling pissed off all the time."
Elison is grateful for the editors at Sybaritic Press, who published her unagented manuscript. "They're very good editors and publishers," she says. But inevitably, she's had to do a lot of marketing herself. "It's good because I've learned a lot about the business doing that and it's not good because no one listens to a writer on her own."
Fortunately, the Philip K. Dick Award has made finding readers a whole lot easier. The award "has opened a lot of doors," she says.
I loved talking to Ken Liu on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy about two very different projects. One was his translation of Cixin Liu's THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM and the other was his new (and first) novel, THE GRACE OF KINGS. Below is my post describing the interview (my 17th, by the way) as it appeared on the New Books Network.
Short story writing, novel writing, and translating require a variety of skills and strengths that are hardly ever found in a single person. Ken Liu is one of those rare individuals who has them all.
He is perhaps best known for short stories like The Paper Menagerie, which (according to his Wikipedia entry) was the first work of fiction to earn Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.
The Three-Body Problem has been a break-out success in China for Cixin Liu, who has won China's Galaxy Award for science fiction nine times. The Three-Body Problem is also the first hard science-fiction novel by an author from the People's Republic of China to be translated into English.
Ken Liu (who is not related to Cixin Liu) says sales numbers for science fiction in China would be the envy of American publishers, but Chinese publishers have traditionally considered it a niche market. That is, until The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels came along. Officially, Chinese readers have bought about 400,000 copies of the three-volume series but Liu says the actual number of readers is far larger as books get passed among friends and family.
Liu anticipated it would be difficult to translate the language of science, but the cultural references proved more challenging. Ultimately, he decided to add concise footnotes to fill in some gaps without overwhelming readers with too much information. The success of his translation is reflected in the The Three-Body Problem's Nebula and Hugo nominations for best novel.
The Grace of Kings, the first book in Liu's projected Dandelion Dynasty, is a very different project--an epic fantasy/science-fiction mashup that Liu calls "silkpunk." Liu grew up in a Chinese speaking household. "Every culture has its own set of foundational narratives that are echoed and dialogued with and re-imagined over and over again... They're stories about how a people embody their own values and see themselves as having meaning in the universe." In the case of The Grace of Kings, Liu drew from an ancient historical struggle known as the Chu-Han Contention but reimagines it in a secondary world, using both classic Western and Chinese storytelling techniques.
"The result is this melding of everything into this fantastical universe that I call silkpunk," Liu says. "So there are battle kites and mechanical contraptions of various sorts, underwater boats and airships that propel themselves with giant feathered oars that represent the kinds of things you see in Chinese block prints and historical romances [but] sort of blown up and extended into a new technology vocabulary that I had a lot fun playing with."
When an author creates a character, she can churn through as many re-writes as she'd like until she gets it right. This, of course, is in stark contrast to reality, where people get only one shot. There's no going back, no do-overs, only an inexorable march to the end.
But what if life were different? Catherine Webb, under the pen name Claire North, offers two worlds where this is possible. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014), she introduces the reader to kalachakra, people who are reborn into the lives they've already lived. The eponymous protagonist, for example, is reborn 15 times at midnight on the cusp between 1918 and 1919.
"It's both liberating because he can go through his childhood knowing everything that's going to happen in coming events because he's already lived it, but it's also horrendous because he can be 5 years old on his 11th life being treated like a 5-year-old... and being forced to re-live his ABCs even though he's actually hundreds of years old."
Touch (2015) offers a different way to escape the drudgery of a single, linear life. The main character, Kepler (a moniker assigned by those trying to destroy it), can travel from body to body with a touch. This allows it to live hundreds of years, experiencing the world like a tourist on an endless trip.
Inevitably, the life of a kalachakra or a body-hopping consciousness can become tedious. Harry August struggles with apathy, having seen that whatever he achieves in one life is erased with the reset of his birth. Kepler, too, struggles to find meaning beyond its focus on survival. The ingredients which ordinary people use to measure their lives don't matter to Kepler. For one thing, it no longer has a gender because it can occupy men and women with equal ease. Nor does it have to experience even mild discomfort: whenever it encounters anything not to its liking, it can jump to another body. Even a hangnail can be enough to send it packing.
Webb herself is no stranger to multiple identities. A fan of pen names (she switches among Catherine Webb, Kate Griffin and Claire North depending on the genre and audience), she is as dexterous at changing writing styles as she is at inventing engaging characters and plots, although sometimes she's only aware of the shift in style after the fact, almost as if someone else--her own Kepler perhaps?--had done the work.
"I'm not necessarily aware consciously of a decision to write in a different style. ... The story has its own logic. I let that do the work, and then I'm surprised to turn around and discover that Kate Griffin sounds very different from Claire North."
More often than not Social Security and other safety-net programs get a bad rap. Politicians and reporters call them "entitlements"--which sounds derogatory to me--and popular wisdom says they'll need to be curtailed or they'll eventually break the federal budget. But there's no hint of doom and gloom on Bascom Hill, where this sign proudly proclaims University of Wisconsin Professor Edwin Witte's role in the development of Social Security. And this bold declaration is within sight of the Capitol Building, where Scott Walker, enemy of labor unions and public education, is trying to leverage his governorship into a presidential candidacy. Fortunately, Social Security has lasted longer than the careers of many nay-saying politicians and hopefully will continue to help government secure "the well-being of its citizens" for many years to come.
Brissett showed similar determination in writing the book, whose non-traditional structure places it outside the mainstream. Fortunately, her approach has been validated, first by her teachers at Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she wrote Elysium as her final thesis, and later by the committee that selected Elysium as one of six nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.
“I wasn’t sure there was a space for me in this writing world. And to a certain degree I still sort of wonder. But the idea that I could write and that my stories are worthy of being told was something [Stonecoast] really helped to foster in me,” she says in her New Books interview.
In some respects, Elysium is simple: it tells a story of love and loss between two people. But Elysium is also complicated because those two people morph from scene to scene changing from two brothers to father/daughter to husband/wife to boyfriend/boyfriend to girlfriend/girlfriend.
When imagining the future, conventional science fiction often focuses too much on gadgets and not enough on people, Brissett says. “We think [science fiction] is about … the new machines we’ll have, the little gadgets that will make our lives easier … but I think the civil rights movement is one of the most science-fictional things that could have probably happened, because all of a sudden this entire group of people that was totally ignored showed up at the table and said ‘We want in.’”
As a child, Brissett found the Wonder Bread future depicted in The Jetsons frightening. “I remember watching as a kid the Jetsons and thinking ‘That is an absolutely terrifying vision of the future. Where are all the black people?’” she says. “The future belongs to everybody. It doesn’t really belong to any one group. And yet when you see visions of the future, it’s usually mostly white heterosexual people wandering around.”
In the early 2000s, Brissett owned an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she experienced the publishing industry’s struggles firsthand. Rather that discourage her from becoming a writer herself, the experience seems to have solidified her desire to tell stories in the way she wants to tell them. “You have to love this field to be here. If you’re here for money, you are certifiably crazy,” she says.
From 6:45 to 10:24 we talk about a major part of the plot, which is revealed on the book jacket but doesn’t actually emerge towards the end of the book so people might want to skip this part (and not read the jacket copy) if they want to approach the story as a mystery whose answer lies in the book’s structure.
Elysium was inspired, in part, by Roman Emperor Hadrian
While science fiction often seeks to imagine the impact of new science on the future, Rod Duncan explores an opposite: what happens when science remains frozen in the past.
In The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, the Luddites prevailed in their protests 200 years ago against labor-replacing machinery, leaving science and culture stuck for generations in a Victorian-like age.
Against this backdrop, Duncan introduces Elizabeth Barnabus, who outmaneuvers the restrictions placed on her as a single woman pretending (with the help of quick-change-artist skills) to be her own brother. “Gender identity and gender presentation is a theme that runs through Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter because in order to do certain things in her world she needs at times to cross-dress and do it in a convincing way,” Duncan says in his interview with me on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Elizabeth’s mastery of disguise—and her knowledge of deception acquired from her circus-owning father—allow her to earn a living as a private investigator and accept an assignment that brings her face to face with agents of the International Patent Office.
In January, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, validating Duncan’s decision to take a stab at science fiction. “I like to let ideas play in an imagined world and see what happens,” he says.
Asked if he found it difficult to write a first-person narrative in a woman’s voice, Duncan points out that all writers must overcome countless barriers to fully enter the minds of their characters.
“The book is about illusion and any writer trying to write from the point of view of someone different from themselves is trying to pull off some kind of illusion; they are trying with smoke and mirrors to seem as if they are realistically that person. Now sometimes that person may be different in all kinds of … ways from the writer.”
Duncan explains that he is dyslexic. “So for me is it a bigger challenge to write from the view of someone who is not dyslexic or is it a bigger challenge to write from the point of view of someone who is from a different time or someone who is a different sex?”
In the end, Duncan says that all writers, like his protagonist Elizabeth, are cross-dressers “in a psychological sense because we have to put ourselves into the minds of other people.”
The crowd is mesmerized by a man on the subway tracks.
Last night I, my husband and our friends had one of those strange yet eerily familiar moments that seem typical of life in New York City where drama unfolds unexpectedly in front of you and yet at (what feels like) a safe distance.
We'd just stepped onto the subway platform at 34th Street and Broadway when a woman ran to the emergency phone near us and began pressing the call button in a panic. Others began shouting at the clerk in her bulletproof booth, and the rest of the crowd was leaning over the edge of the platform, peering toward the far end of the tracks.
"What happened?" my husband asked the woman on the phone. "There's a guy on the tracks," she blurted, panting with panic. I assumed the man must have fallen or was pushed. My next thought was he might be suicidal. As we drifted with the crowd toward him, we realized he must be either drunk and/or mentally ill. Although dressed like an ordinary citizen of New York, only someone whose thinking was impaired would act as he did: as if he were simply going for a stroll on the narrow wooden platform over the deadly third rail.
People screamed when it appeared he might topple and some were offering their hands to help lift him back onto the platform. I wondered why the Transit Authority didn't shut the power, although I imagined it was probably a complicated process. (A question for officials: shouldn't a simple on-off switch be accessible in emergencies?) Others were mumbling "Where are the police? What's taking them so long?" A local train and an express train pulled partly into the station, inching along until they came to full stops.
For 15 minutes, the man was the star of a scary show, the focus of the crowd's collective panic, voyeurism and agitation. Of course, everyone was snapping pictures and taking video (myself included) which seemed both awful and like a perfectly natural thing to do. When the police finally arrived, I'm told (because I stopped looking, fearing the man's dance on the 3rd rail could only end in tragedy) that they simply grabbed him and pulled him back onto the platform.
I'm sure there's a lesson in this, but I'm not sure what it is. (That one man has the power to stop two trains?) At least I was happy that the police took decisive action and encouraged that the crowd, rather than demonstrate indifference, showed concern and offered to help, even as we took out our smart phones and documented this strange sad moment from many angles.
It’s no surprise that when scientists in Ben H. Winter’s The Last Policeman series declare that a 6.5-mile asteroid is going to destroy life as we know it on October 3, civilization starts to unravel.
Governments collapse. People quit their jobs and abandon their families. Survivalists stock up on guns and food, imagining there’s a way to outsmart the impending holocaust. Fatalists sink into hedonism, depression or suicide.
And then there’s Hank Palace, a detective on the Concord, N.H., police force and the eponymous star of Winter’s trilogy. Faced with the end of the world, Palace does the almost unthinkable: he keeps doing his job.
Palace remains dedicated to his job as he tries to: determine whether an apparent suicide is actually a murder (Book 1); track down a missing person (Book 2); and find his sister, who’s joined a group determined to save the planet (Book 3).
Ben H. Winters
Throughout the trilogy, Winters demonstrates a mastery of two genres, a fact reflected in the awards the series has collected. The first book, The Last Policeman, earned an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, while the second book, Countdown City, was recognized for excellence in science fiction with the receipt of the Philip K. Dick Award, and the third book, World of Trouble, which was published in July 2014, is a finalist for (another!) Edgar Award (the winner will be announced in April).
Like his main character, Winters likes to be prepared while remaining flexible. “I always start with a pretty good outline and then by the time I’m really deep into the book that outline is more or less thrown away and replaced by a different one,” Winters says. “I have to allow the outline to be there but for it to always be provisional, to always be a work in progress.”
Among other topics tackled in the interview are Winters’ optimism about human nature, the art of telling a compelling mystery, and some hints about his next book (a mystery in an alternate or “counter-factual” America.
Although her first book was a success (winning the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel), the other two books in the series, Infidel and Rapture, were hurt by the financial troubles of the publisher. Hurley rallied, finding a new agent and a new publisher, but the path wasn’t easy. As she says, “You’re only as good as your last book. If your last book doesn’t sell, then you’re not going to sell other work. … This is an up and down business. It’s not a straight trajectory. You have to work very hard, and I think that’s very motivating for me to know I have to work very hard just to stay in the game.”
While writing is a solitary affair, Hurley has surrounded herself with a circle of supporters—and advises everyone to do the same. “If you’re going to have a goal in life… You want to be a CEO, you want to open your own business, you want to be a writer [then] you need to surround yourself with people who support what you are doing. And that’s everyone. If your family doesn’t support what you do then maybe don’t see them as much. I hate to say it. And if you have a partner who doesn’t support what you do, then maybe you should look at a different partner. If the agent that you have is not working out and your styles just do not work and you’re not getting what you need from that relationship then you need to find an agent that works.”
Check out Hurley's essay "We Have Always Fought"—about the history of women in conflict—which was the first blog post ever to win a Hugo Award.