An Interview with James Alan Gardner

An Interview with James Alan Gardner
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been very lucky to get in touch with James Alan Gardner. As a disability scholar and someone who is interested in portrayals in Science Fiction of people who are Othered, I was extremely pleased that Mr. Gardner agreed to do an interview with me. I hope that readers enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. 

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

James Alan Gardner: I grew up in small-town Ontario, then went to the University of Waterloo to take math. Eventually I got my B.Math and M.Math in Applied Math, writing my master’s thesis on black holes. Just recently, I’ve gone back to UW part-time to study Earth Sciences. In my spare time, I meditate and do kung fu.

Spec Can: What role can Science Fiction have to push boundaries and help people to question the status quo?

James Alan Gardner: Science Fiction is always based on the question, “What would happen if things were different?” The differences can be technological, sociological, or even historical as in alternate history stories, but one way or another, SF deals with worlds that are not exactly like our own. The whole premise of SF is that the status quo is impermanent: it hasn’t always been what it is today, and it won’t be the same in future.

Spec Can: Your novels set in the League of Peoples universe question a lot of the traditions of human society and presents a future that both defies current assumptions about what is “normal” as well as presenting future worlds that continue with our assumptions. What interested you in questioning ideas of “normal” and traditions?

James Alan Gardner: I’m a straight white middle-class male, so the world has never hassled me about “normality”. Maybe that puts me in too privileged a position to say this, but I’ve never understood the concern about what is and isn’t normal. I meet people who are afraid that they’re weird or who brag about being weird, and my reaction is, “Who cares?” (Well, usually, my first reaction is, “You have no idea what weird really is.” Caring about weirdness is pretty darned mainstream.)

So I never deliberately set out to confront tradition or normality. Stuff like that just never occurs to me. Instead, I ask, “What would be interesting? What wouldn’t be cliché?” That may take me to non-traditional places, but not in the spirit of questioning tradition or addressing it at all. It’s just more interesting to do something that hasn’t been done to death.

For example, the whole idea of the League of Peoples comes out of a desire not to do warring interstellar societies. War in space is so old hat. How could I do space adventure stories without war? So I invented a universe where interstellar war was absolutely impossible. Then I followed all the implications to see what would happen.

Spec Can: As a disability scholar, I was fascinated by your novel Expendable and the concept of a universe in the future where people who are disabled or disfigured are treated as an expendable class because they are considered less aesthetically appealing. What inspired this novel? What are some of the issues around appearance and the body that you were hoping to attract attention to?Expendable

James Alan Gardner: For any Star Trek fan, it’s obvious that Expendable was inspired by the redshirts: the characters who got killed instead of the show’s stars. One night, I was writing impromptu—just improvising to see what came up—and Festina’s voice erupted with the first ten pages of the novel, pretty much exactly as they appear in the finished book. I had no prior ideas for any of that material; I don’t know why it was sitting in my subconscious. But once it was on the page, I had to deal with it and make a story around it.

A lot of what eventually appeared in Expendable was informed by issues of privilege. Except for the Explorer Corps, everyone else in the Technocracy navy is shallow and pampered. Later on in the series, I let the “pretty people” have more depth—they’re human, so they have their private pains, despite being born “lucky”—but Expendable was filtered through the eyes of Festina Ramos, and at that time, Festina had a huge chip on her shoulder.

Recently, John Scalzi has come up with a great way of expressing something I was talking about in Expendable. Scalzi said that being a straight white (non-disabled) male is like playing video games on the easiest setting. It’s not that life is problem-free, but that the bar you have to clear is lower. An ongoing issue in the League of Peoples stories is that Explorers are better prepared to deal with the unknown because they’ve faced more adversity than most of the other people in their time.

Spec Can: Commitment Hour presents people who change sex every year until they reach the age of 21. What was it like to conceive of an annual shift in sex for your characters? How did this question the rigidity of gender roles and gendered identities for you?

James Alan Gardner: I really like the alternating-sex set-up of Commitment Hour, but in retrospect I don’t think I used it as well as I could have.

The action was narrated by a character named Fullin who was male during the action of the novel, but who had occasional flashbacks to years when he was female. For the purpose of the story, Fullin’s culture had to differentiate between male and female gender roles—otherwise, there’s no drama when characters have to choose one sex over the other. So male Fullin had to have a different identity than female Fullin. But I went too far in making male Fullin a full-out sexist. If I could do the book over, I’d make Fullin’s male and female personalities different in some other way. That would have allowed me to address issues of gender with more nuance.

I might note that this highlights an important point about writing: the restrictions imposed by your viewpoint character. Writers aren’t 100% confined by the character’s viewpoint—there are tricks you can use to sneak past the character’s limitations—but you can only go so far. Every character is a collection of blind-spots, and that stops them from being able to tell certain types of stories.

Spec Can: In Vigilant, you examine what a society would be like where polygamous (group) marriages are traditional. What fascinated you with the idea of questioning the assumption that all relationships should be monogamous?

James Alan Gardner: I went into Vigilant wanting to write about a democracy. Too often, SF shows future societies that are monarchies or oligarchies; I wanted to write about a real democracy with institutions designed to keep it working well. This led to an interest in the relationship of individuals to groups…so it was a short step to making group marriage the standard family form. It’s more social, less claustrophobic.

The group marriage also gave the narrator Faye a social connection—she’s not a loner, like so many SF protagonists—while giving her more rope to play with, sexually. There are things she does in the novel which would be objectionable in a normal two-person marriage, but which are less so in a loose group marriage.

Spec Can: What is something that you hope that readers will take away from reading your novels?

James Alan Gardner: I hope my readers enjoy spending time with the characters. I also hope I’ve given people things to think about that they haven’t seen before. Finally, I hope that readers have had a few laughs; comedy matters a lot to me.

Spec Can: As an educator as well as science fiction author, in what ways do you see SF as being something that can be pedagogical?

James Alan Gardner: Science fiction and fantasy can deal with the world being changed to an extent that doesn’t happen in other branches of literature. I don’t just mean depicting different kinds of worlds; I mean the process of people actually changing the world. In other forms of literature, characters may make a difference on a small scale, but they can’t be world-changers.

For example, what would a literary novel about Einstein look like? It would be about his childhood, his home life, his psychology, and so on. It wouldn’t be about his big public accomplishments. SF can talk about the big stuff because SF worlds are always subject to change. That’s what we write about: different worlds. So it’s very easy for SF to show entire worlds being changed by the actions of people. That’s a lesson readers should learn.

Spec Can: What do you see as particularly Canadian about the SF you produce? Does your Canadian identity influence your work, and, if so, in what ways?

James Alan Gardner: Being Canadian affects everything I write, though seldom in any obvious way. For example, I think it makes me more quietly optimistic than American or British writers. Canada is far from perfect, but we have experience with peaceful coexistence between different types of people. In a lot of American SF, there’s a subtext that culture war is inevitable unless everyone melts together into the same pot. In Canada, we don’t see that as necessary—individuals can be very different, yet still get along.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian SF going from here? What is the future of Canadian SF?

James Alan Gardner: There are plenty of good Canadian SF writers, and more appearing each year. Just to name a few whom I make sure to follow: Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Julie Czerneda, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson, Tanya Huff, Peter Watts, and no doubt others who slip my mind at this moment. (You’ll notice that I don’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. To me, the family resemblances between science fiction and fantasy are more important than the differences.)

Spec Can: How can the figure of “the Alien” make us think more about ourselves and question the things that we do?

James Alan Gardner: In science fiction, aliens typically fall into one of three categories: totally alien, so we really can’t understand anything they do; pretty much human, in which case they’re mostly like us, except for cosmetic touches; and human reflections, where the aliens are like humans in many ways, but have some substantial difference (e.g. Star Trek Vulcans with their devotion to logic and attempted erasure of emotion).

Often, authors use the third category to make some point about the human condition by exaggerating or eliminating some ordinary human trait. When it’s done well, it can make us think about that trait’s role in our lives and society. Since I’ve already mentioned Vulcans, a great many Star Trek episodes played on the place of emotion in human existence. When is it good? When it is bad? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Spock’s presence made it possible to explore such questions. In fact, Spock’s presence almost forced the writers to keep coming back to the questions, and to make them a central part of the series. The writers had to keep digging, and to keep thinking about the role of emotion in our lives.

Spec Can: As a pacifist, I was fascinated by the idea of murderers being defined as “Dangerous Non-Sentients” by the League of Peoples in your novels – the idea that people who killed were considered not sentient by the League and unable to therefore travel from their solar system. What inspired this idea of the “Dangerous Non-Sentient”?

James Alan Gardner: I’ve already mentioned my desire to write books without interstellar wars, just as a way to avoid doing the same old same-old. The other thing that the League’s influence did was separate humanity into two camps: those who left Earth were those who accepted the League’s version of pacifism; those who remained on Earth were essentially the people who couldn’t bear to put down their guns. As a result, those left on Earth went through a very turbulent time, and order was only restored when one group came out on top (with help from alien partners). This gave me a cake-and-eat-it arrangement: League-imposed pacifism in space, and a much more violent situation for those who stayed on Earth. I could play around with both strands of human culture, and eventually show what might happen if they were artificially separated.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

James Alan Gardner: Thanks for asking me to participate!

I want to thank James Alan Gardner for this incredible interview and for all of the insights that he has raised. If you are interested in reading more of his work, you can explore his website at


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