Upcoming Interview with Lynda Williams on August 2, 2013

Lynda Williams and I have been corresponding for a while, each visiting the other’s website and reading about various comments about Canadian SF. I was therefore very excited when Ms. Williams agreed to do an interview here. It is always very exciting to talk with an author who is comfortable deconstructing and analysing her own work, and whose keen observations add much to the discourse of Canadian SF.

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

In our upcoming interview on August 2, 2013, Lynda Williams discusses the power of close observation for an author, religion, culture contact, imbalances of power, writing LGBTQ or queer characters and giving them personal complexity and depth, engaging with issues around homophobia, gender stereotypes, the question of medical intervention, writing about trauma, and the importance of fan participation in an author’s world.

Here are some teasers from our interview:

Lynda Williams: [Science Fiction] “makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers.”

Lynda Williams: “I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning.”

Lynda Williams: “My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.”

Lynda Williams: “If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.”

Lynda Williams: “My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes.”

Lynda Williams: “Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something.”

Lynda Williams: “Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.”

Lynda Williams: “Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others, so it invites participation naturally.”

Lynda Williams: “I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction.”

Lynda Williams: “The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.”

If you have not already had the chance, check out my review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-in-between-space/. You can find out more about Ms. Williams and the Okal Rel universe at http://okalrel.org/.

Advertisements

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

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 http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/english/index.shtml

Paranoia, Power, Politics, Police, and Protest

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland (Tor Teen, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Marcus was known as m1k3y when he was younger, a web protestor and advocate of human rights who exposed government corruption. In Homeland, Marcus is a young adult, just beginning life outside of university. He has all of the regular issues facing a young person – searching for a job, dealing with student loans, new relationships… but he also has had a new set of responsibilities placed on him. When two of his friends are kidnapped, they leave him with a huge document listing and proving a remarkable variety of government and corporate abuses of power, criminal activities, and general corruption. He has to think about his own safety and the safety of his friends and family when he decides whether to release this information to the public.

The world Cory Doctorow creates in Homeland is one of corruption by people in positions of power (the 1%), government control, surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the general disinclination of the public to challenge these systems of control and abuse…. in other words, our world. Homeland, as well as being a brilliant story, is a call to activism, a demand that readers open their eyes and see the world around them with all of its flaws and to do something about the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name (in the name of the public, in public security, or ‘our best interest’).

With the rise of protests against the abuses of power by the 1%, the occupy movement, and Anonymous, Homeland is written at the perfect time to empower young adults to take an active interest in their world and in the collective power that they can wield against a corrupt system. Our society is one in which protests, activism, and even general consciousness about injustices is discouraged… indeed one in which many of the groups who bring awareness about inequalities are criminalised and portrayed as social problems. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot allow the criminalisation of social protestors and people standing up for collective rights, and that we need to ask questions, inquire about things, be aware, and actually DO SOMETHING about the corruption in our world rather than assuming that this is the natural way of things.

Doctorow’s character Marcus is a hacker, but not someone who puts malicious software on computers (as many hackers are portrayed to be), he is someone who is intensely interested in governmental and business corruption and the abuses that occur to the public in the name of “public safety” and “betterment”. He sees the Orwellian doublespeak that is used to put layers of control on the public. Marcus faces moral dilemmas when hackers break into his own computer and begin surveilling him – the same kind of surveillance and violations of privacy that corporations and the government have done to control society. Despite what they have done to him personally, they provide him with information that could help to ensure his freedom from the corporations that stalk him and endanger his friends  – BUT if he uses it, he is endorsing the kind of malicious use of technology that he has been fighting against (attacks on his own privacy). His ‘saviours’ are very much like the corporations that have endangered him in the first place. Doctorow ensures that his novel has no easy morals – no ‘hackers good, corporations bad’ dichotomies, but rather relies on his readers to determine their own morals and question the diversity of individuals who are conducting actions rather than trying to paint entire groups with one moral brush.

Doctorow doesn’t limit his ideas of moral ambiguity to personalities in the novel, he also explores the dualistic role of technology – no technology is, in itself, either good or bad, and technology that was used to support the 1% and their abuse of power can be reworked, changed, and re-purposed to help to expose those abuses of power. UAVs, although used to spy on protestors and reveal their positions to police can also be used to take areal photos of the group to expose police bullying and abuses of power as well as to show ways for protestors to escape from police blockades. Doctorow illustrates that protestors have to be as willing and able to adapt, change, and modify their strategies as those in charge of the systems of oppression around them.

Homeland reminds readers that we can’t blame the system and give up our agency over what is happening in the world around us. Acts are being committed in our names, in the name of the public that we would not approve of. We have to take responsibility and do something.

To find out more about Cory Doctorow, you can visit his website at http://craphound.com/ . To find out more about Homeland, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/homeland-1/CoryDoctorow .

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

An Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
By Derek Newman-Stille

I recently had the opportunity to meet Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. We only had time for a short chat since both of us had a great deal of events on our plates, so I wanted to have the chance to do a full interview with Mr. Sawyer here on Speculating Canada and give him the chance to provide some of his insights to readers.

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

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

Robert J. Sawyer: My friend David Gerrold and I had a discussion a few years ago, when we were both giving talks in Istanbul, about how one should answer that question. My answer is, “I’m a Canadian science-fiction writer.” David contends that’s what I do, not who I am—but I don’t agree. Over the last few years, I’ve given up using the very nice office in my home and moved to writing in my living room, because I simply don’t make a distinction between work and the rest of my life. Besides, being a science-fiction writer is too much fun to actually be termed “work.”

I was born in Ottawa in 1960, grew up in Toronto, and now live in Mississauga. I write a novel a year, and have been doing so consistently since my first, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990. I’m fortunate enough to be one of only eight writers ever to have won all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which I won for Hominids), the Nebula (which I won for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which I won for Mindscan). Oh, and the ABC TV series FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name, and I was one of the scriptwriters for that show.

Most recently—and of interest to Canadians—I was lucky enough to win three consecutive Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”), one for each volume of my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. Humanist Canada just gave me their first-ever Humanism in the Arts Award, the Governor-General’s office just awarded me a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the RTA School of Media at my alma mater, Ryerson University, just named me one of the 12 initial inductees to their Wall of Fame. They say a prophet—if a science-fiction writer may be termed that—is never honoured at home, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Spec Can: A lot of your written work shows an interest in anthropology and paleontology (such as Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, and Red Planet Blues). What inspired your interest in these fields? Why do they speak to you?

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: Ever since I was a pre-schooler, I’ve been fascinated by paleontology, and especially dinosaurian paleontology—so much so, that right up until halfway through my last year of high school, I intended to make a career out of being a paleontologist, and was accepted to study that field at the University of Toronto.

I love studying ancient life for the same reason I love the notion of extraterrestrial life: they’re alien beings. Not only is that cool in and of itself, but both are highly speculative areas: in paleontology, we try to puzzle out what dinosaurs might have looked like, and extrapolate from elusive clues what their reproductive strategies, diets, and social structures might have been like. In astrobiology, we go even further, trying to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like from first principles, without a single actual specimen to study.

My focus on these issues has led me to have a wonderful relationship with the SETI Institute, by the way; I’m the only science-fiction novelist who was invited to their two public SETICon symposia, and their chief astronomer, Seth Shostak, often has me as a guest on the SETI Institute’s radio program “Big Picture Science.” In turn, I named a genus of Martian fossil Shostakia in Red Planet Blues.

The foremost Canadian paleontologist is the dinosaur specialist Philip Currie, currently at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and others have been kind enough to call me the foremost Canadian science-fiction writer. But Phil always wanted to be a science-fiction writer, and I always wanted to be a dinosaur expert. It tickles us both that in some alternate timeline, he’s me, and I’m him.

As for my fascination with anthropology, and especially paleoanthropology, again, it mirrors my interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. A Neanderthal or an individual of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster is fundamentally much more alien than, say, a Vulcan or a Bajoran. Figuring out what the cognitive processes and lifestyles of our cousins or ancestors might have been like is as thrilling as any detective story.

Spec Can: There is an upcoming conference in your honour called “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre”. What makes SF so interdisciplinary? How does it extend beyond traditional genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: Yes, indeed. This September, McMaster University is hosting this conference, which will surely be the largest academic conference ever held devoted to Canadian science fiction and fantasy, in honour of the donation of my archives to that institution. I am totally thrilled about that. The paper proposals that have come in are amazing.

I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions. Where else will you find, say, quantum computing and paleoanthropology sparking off each other, as they do in my Hominids, or information theory, primate communication, and Chinese politics jointly driving the plot, as they do in my novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder?

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

For a large number of my books, I’ve focused on consciousness studies, which is the most interdisciplinary area of all: neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, theologians, and so on, all have places at the table in debates about the nature of consciousness, and those clashing perspectives have fueled my novels The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Hominids and its sequels, Mindscan, Wake and its sequels, Triggers, and the novel I’m writing now, tentatively titled The Philosopher’s Zombie.

Most other genre fiction is plot-driven; at its best, science fiction is thematically driven, and the high-level exploration of a theme—does God exist, do we have free will, what are our ethical responsibilities to other intelligences that already exist or that we might create?—demands an interdisciplinary approach.

Spec Can: Many of your novels blend or bend genres. What are some of the genre-bending novels you have most enjoyed writing? Why were you interested in pushing genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: People who don’t read science fiction tend to think of it as a very narrow category: space opera, and not much more. But it provides the widest possible canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life. And beyond that, it let’s you tell any kind of story, including courtroom drama (as I did in Illegal Alien), romance (Rollback), thriller (Triggers), and noir detective fiction (Red Planet Blues). Calgary critic Hugh Graham observed recently that it’s almost impossible to believe that Triggers and Red Planet Blues—so different from each other in style and voice—were written by the same person; that pleased me immensely.

I push genre boundaries for three reasons. First, because I don’t actually believe in the boundaries; our genre distinctions come out of American bookselling, and the attempt to organize the shelves in a store—it’s entirely artificial, and of little artistic interest.

Second, because it keeps me fresh. If I’d been a mystery-fiction writer, I’d very likely be doing my twenty-third novel about my ongoing series detective character; instead, I’ve gotten to write twenty-three very different novels, and that’s very artistically satisfying. I enjoy stretching different muscles with each new work.

And third, because it makes sound business sense. It’s a way to grow my audience, bringing in people who don’t think they’d like science fiction. I love that Penguin Canada publishes my books under their mainstream Viking imprint, and I’m so proud that first Waterloo Region and then the County of Brant chose books by me for their community-wide reading programs (Hominids in Waterloo; Rollback in Brant—which includes Paris, Ontario, and environs), and that I’m currently a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award for best Canadian-authored fiction or nonfiction book of 2012 (for Triggers). That’s a reach way beyond what an author who stayed comfortably within the SF box would ever normally get.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about the characters and/or worlds you create? How does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Robert J. Sawyer: My novels are mostly set in Canada, have Canadian protagonists, revel in Canada’s diversity, and deal with Canadian themes. I’m a pacifist, and Canada is a country of peacekeepers, not aggressors—and you see that very much in my books. I’m firmly committed to diversity, and I reflect Canada’s multiculturalism in everything I write—and I’m so proud to twice have been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which honours works that positively portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered lifestyles. As the Globe and Mail has said, “Sawyer sells so well in Canada because of his celebration of our culture; citizens seek him out for both a good story and affirmation of our identity. By writing about us, he has pried himself loose from the SF purgatory and onto the bestseller lists.”

Spec Can: What distinguishes Canadian SF from that of other nationalities?

Robert J. Sawyer: How’s this for an answer: its quality.

On April 29, 2013, which happens to be my 53rd birthday, I’ll be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a full-time professional writer, something that’s only been possible because of Canada’s wonderful socialized healthcare. Malcolm Gladwell—himself a Canadian—wrote the great nonfiction book Outliers, in which he documents at length how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something. We Canadian writers, because we don’t have to be shackled to a nine-to-five to get health insurance, often get those hours under our belts decades before our American colleagues do, and you see that reflected in how many Canadians show up on the Hugo ballot year after year—in numbers all out of proportion to Canada’s population size.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian SF is heading for here? What does the future of Canadian SF look like?

Robert J. Sawyer: We’ve long had a vigorous tradition of small-press SF publishing in Canada, and that’s going to continue. But I also think the big presses are going to start doing more and more honest-to-goodness science fiction. Penguin Canada was a trendsetter when it acquired me back in 2007, prompting the Canadian publishing trade journal Quill & Quire to opine, “When Penguin Canada snatched up domestic rights to science fiction giant Robert J. Sawyer, it felt like the Canuck industry was finally waking up to an entire genre.” And it has. You no longer have to go to US publishers to make real money writing science fiction in this country, and that’s all to the good.

Spec Can: What new questions or ideas can SF open in the minds of readers? How can SF challenge the status quo?

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: SF is a subversive genre, and always has been. Sometimes it’s done with metaphors and disguises; I certainly did that in Hominids, which is as much about contrasting Canadian and American values as it is about contrasting those of Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. And sometimes it just stands up and does that. Page one of my novel Calculating God, published in 2000, says this:

The alien’s shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum, where I work. I say it used to be the planetarium because Mike Harris, Ontario’s tightfisted premier, cut the funding to the planetarium. He figured Canadian kids didn’t have to know about space—a real forward-thinking type, Harris. After he closed the planetarium, the building was rented out for a commercial Star Trek exhibit, with a mockup of the classic bridge set inside what had been the star theater. As much as I like Star Trek, I can’t think of a sadder comment on Canadian educational priorities.

A few Canadians objected to that, saying political commentary doesn’t belong in science fiction. They’re dead wrong, in my view. Going right back to H.G. Wells, it’s always been a vehicle for political comment.

Spec Can: What can SF do that “realist” fiction can’t?

Robert J. Sawyer: First, it’s important to stress that SF can do everything that mimetic fiction can: it can move you to tears, it can make you laugh out loud, it can explore character psychology in exquisite detail, it can dazzle you with stylistic experimentation and beautiful prose.

But on top of that, it can also get you to think about issues you haven’t thought about since late-night dorm-room bull sessions decades ago. All the topics we’re told to avoid in day-to-day life—politics, religion, sex, and alternative approaches to those things—are the core subject matter of speculative writing, whereas they are ignored in much mainstream fiction.

Spec Can: Your work often deals with the interconnection and collision of ideas of past, present, and future. What inspires your interest in the interrelationship between past, present, and future?

Robert J. Sawyer: I don’t write in a linear fashion—I never start at page one and go to page last; rather, I bop back and forth throughout the narrative as I’m constructing it. That reflects my belief that time itself isn’t really linear.  Now is now solely because you and I happen to—for the moment—agree on that point.  But here, a few seconds later, is the new now, oh, and look—here comes another now! Time is endlessly fascinating to me simply because it’s so often not thought about at all by most people, and because we know so little about its nature.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write SF?

Robert J. Sawyer: A confluence of things: seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre in 1968 when I was eight years old; seeing a bit of the original Star Trek on TV; the Supermarionation TV shows of Gerry Anderson; growing up as the Apollo space program was happening; and reading the first few science-fiction books I encountered: Oliver P. Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg; The Runaway Robot, putatively by Lester del Rey but actually ghostwritten by Paul W. Fairman; Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse; Space Skimmer by the same David Gerrold I mentioned in the answer to your first question; and the Asimov collection The Rest of the Robots —which, at twelve years old, I thought was about robots taking a break, not realizing that it was the leftover stories that weren’t in I, Robot.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

I enjoyed all of those books enormously, and wanted to try my hand at creating my own stories. Ironically, of them all, the one that’s mostly not thought of as an SF book—The Enormous Egg—is the one that probably influenced me most, with its contemporary setting, its focus on paleontology, and its satiric bent.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Robert J. Sawyer: No, not really. They have the personalities I give them; I’m a craftsperson, and they’re carefully constructed pieces of my craft. I think they’re highly realistic, but they’re not voices in my head; heck, if I did start hearing voices, I hope I’d have the good sense to go see a psychiatrist.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer: The digitizing, copying, uploading, and modifying of human consciousness—which is one of the core topics I explore in my latest novel, Red Planet Blues.

I want to thank Mr. Sawyer for his incredible insights, particularly about the subversive nature of Canadian SF. If you haven’t had the chance yet, check out Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ .

Also, Mr. Sawyer mentioned above the conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre. If you are interested, you can explore it at http://www.sfwriter.com/cfp.htm . A conference on Canadian SF, could there be anything more fun? 

Upcoming Interview with Robert J. Sawyer On Friday, April 12.

I recently met Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts and had the opportunity to invite him to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Sawyer’s work, he has been, at various points in his career, the recipient of all three of the world’s top awards for science fiction writing: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award as well as the Canadian Aurora awards, the Humanism in the Arts Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

On April 12, Robert J. Sawyer and I will be talking about the separation between life and SF writing, extraterrestrial intelligence and astrobiology, the distinct nature of Canadian SF, the interdisciplinarity of SF, and SF’s ability to ask complex questions. He is a science fiction writer who has as much interest in the past as he does in the future and lets that interest speak to his SF work. Mr. Sawyer experiments with the SF genre, infusing it with elements from courtroom dramas, detective fiction, romance, and thrillers.

Here are some teasers from our upcoming interview

Robert J. Sawyer: “I simply don’t make a distinction between work and the rest of my life. Besides, being a science-fiction writer is too much fun to actually be termed ‘work.’”

Robert J. Sawyer: “I love studying ancient life for the same reason I love the notion of extraterrestrial life: they’re alien beings. Not only is that cool in and of itself, but both are highly speculative areas: in paleontology, we try to puzzle out what dinosaurs might have looked like, and extrapolate from elusive clues what their reproductive strategies, diets, and social structures might have been like. In astrobiology, we go even further, trying to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like from first principles, without a single actual specimen to study.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “As for my fascination with anthropology, and especially paleoanthropology, again, it mirrors my interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. A Neanderthal or an individual of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster is fundamentally much more alien than, say, a Vulcan or a Bajoran.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “Most other genre fiction is plot-driven; at its best, science fiction is thematically driven, and the high-level exploration of a theme—does God exist, do we have free will, what are our ethical responsibilities to other intelligences that already exist or that we might create?—demands an interdisciplinary approach.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “People who don’t read science fiction tend to think of it as a very narrow category: space opera, and not much more. But it provides the widest possible canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “I’m a pacifist, and Canada is a country of peacekeepers, not aggressors—and you see that very much in my books. I’m firmly committed to diversity, and I reflect Canada’s multiculturalism in everything I write—and I’m so proud to twice have been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which honours works that positively portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered lifestyles.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “SF is a subversive genre, and always has been.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “It’s important to stress that SF can do everything that mimetic fiction can: it can move you to tears, it can make you laugh out loud, it can explore character psychology in exquisite detail, it can dazzle you with stylistic experimentation and beautiful prose. But on top of that, it can also get you to think about issues you haven’t thought about since late-night dorm-room bull sessions decades ago.”

Explore our full interview on Friday April 12 and hear more about the power of SF to subvert the norms and question social trends and ideas.

Interview with Leah Bobet

An interview with Leah Bobet by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

I was fortunate enough to meet Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. We had a brief chat about SF and inclusivity, and I got back in touch with her again after reading her novel Above, which I was excited about because it dealt with disability (the focus of my research). I was very excited when Leah Bobet agreed to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so I could share some of her insights with readers.

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

Leah Bobet: Hmm.  It’s always a tricky thing to decide what’s interesting about oneself.

I’m a writer and editor, and also work as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest speculative fiction bookstore.  I run Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a quarterly webzine, and write for Shadow Unit, a project that’s best described as fanfic for a TV show that never existed, alongside Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Holly Black, and Chelsea Polk.

Before going to full-time writing, though, I worked as a non-partisan staffer at Queen’s Park, and so local politics – and local activism — are something of a passion: I’m on the board of Women in Toronto Politics, a tiny brand-new non-profit that works to help more women access City Hall and build the communities they want to live in, and I’m going to be working on Toronto’s brand new pedestrian advocacy organization.  I’m also deeply into urban agriculture and supporting local food, and spend a lot of my summer working with groups that glean downtown fruit trees or plant gardens in public spaces.

Otherwise, I do a lot of reading; I see a lot of small indie bands in smaller spaces; take wandering, exploratory walks; look for the perfect Eggs Benedict; and make bad puns about Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Spec Can: Above was a novel about discrimination. What types of discrimination were you thinking of when writing this? What social plights influenced this story’s discourse on discrimination?

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

Leah Bobet: I was thinking, mostly, about intersectionality: How we can be legitimately marginalized because of one aspect of who we are, and legitimately marginalizing someone else because of another facet.  Every single character in the book has that dual role, because that’s life; that’s how people are and can be.

Some of that comes out of my own background.  I grew up in a minority culture, PTSD everyone-will-genocide-you tics and all, but in such a homogenous neighbourhood that I never really felt that social difference until I was an adult with a strong sense of my own power.  It was a slightly weird way to grow up, and made cultural politics both complicated and fascinating: People I cared about acted in ways that to my mind were horrifying, racist, and amoral, but to them were self-defense, because having been victimized so badly meant whatever steps you took were justified.  And there was no communicating one side to the other.  The context gap was just too great.

So I wanted to talk about that: the damage that our damage does, and how on earth one strikes a balance between recognizing what one’s suffered and perpetuating it on someone else.

One of the other focuses was disability: both physical disability and mental illness.  And that came about partially because of my own dissatisfaction with the official line on mental illness, and because of a friend, who’s mobility-impaired, speaking about how stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes.  So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause.  It felt like a thing worth doing, and it turned out that it was.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in helping people to question their biases?

Leah Bobet: There is a stock reply to this question: about metaphor, and removing present concerns from their context to sneakily teach people lessons from other angles.  Rocketship angles!  With space morals!  But it’s not an answer I tend to believe in, and not one I can really give.

I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.

Books have made me question my biases and move past them, or never develop certain noxious ones.  In fact, the best reviews I’ve heard for Above were the ones where people said, “This made me want to do something.”  But that doesn’t fool me into thinking speculative fiction has some sort of special magic that readers of other genres – or TV-watchers, or gamers – will never access.  That’s, ironically, a bias that speculative fiction readers have – one that feeds into our ideas of ourselves as more enlightened, better, and smarter, and misses the fact that of course speculative work will reach readers like us better than other kinds.  Because otherwise we wouldn’t be reading speculative fiction in the first place.  We’d be face-first into a detective book and never pick up SFF to start with – and we’d be having conversations about our biases in the tropes of detective fiction.

Reading, to me, is a dialogue.  It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle.  Sometimes the reader’s not in a place where they’re ready to be receptive to a book’s point.  Sometimes what the book’s saying is just old news to that reader (good example: I tend to appreciate early feminist SFF, but a lot of it feels like someone trying to convince me the sky is blue.  Generational context.  Go figure.)  Sometimes book and reader just legitimately disagree.  And that’s true of all novels, all genres, and all forms of telling people a story – speculative or not.  The only thing we can really do, as readers, is read widely and with open minds.

Spec Can: Your novel Above brings critical attention to scientists and, particularly to medical practitioners (the Whitecoats in the novel). What questions were you hoping your readers would ask about medical practices and the cultural ideas underlying them?

Leah Bobet: Actually, in terms of the Whitecoats and Dr. Marybeth’s balancing role, I was hoping people would treat that question of medical practices thoughtfully – just like everything else in Above – and consider what our treatment of mental illness and disability mean in terms that aren’t black and white.

Like anyone else, the medical practitioners in Above are people: a mixture of good and bad personalities and ideas.  And like everything else, who’s good or bad depends on who’s telling the story.  The type of person who would prefer to live in a roughed-out underground cavern rather than in bad circumstances that still include heating and flush toilets just…they didn’t seem like they’d have kind things to say about the medical profession.  And so Safe has the concept of Whitecoats.  And that’s less about me getting a particular message across than trying to create those characters logically, and build a culture that was true to how they’d feel – and then explore the consequences of that culture on their children.

Spec Can: Above focusses on the narration of Matthew, the Teller for the community called “Safe”. His role is primarily to tell stories of the community. What role do you see stories having in creating a community? How can the telling of the past form a sense of shared history?

Leah Bobet: I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community.  Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same.  Community is shared stories.  Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.

There are about a trillion examples of how giving people a narrative binds them together – the most obvious one being the US, where the patriotism story is so frequently hammered home and so prominent because (I think, sometimes) it’s so big and full of people who have nothing in common, period.  That’s looking back to shared history every day: We did something together, we shared experience and values, and so we must be the same.  It’s functionally a social hack.  And it can really work to smooth out the tensions caused by present differences, until it doesn’t.

This is, in some ways, a very academic-linguistic perspective on communities, and how and why we form them (sorry; I trained as a linguist, and it’s in everything I do).  The warmer, more optimistic side of that, though: It gives us the option of making our own communities.  We can get together, with our shared experiences, and be social and understood and not be alone.  And that’s kind of a wonderful gift for those of us who don’t fit well into the places we were born, and need to make new places; who need to make Safe.

Spec Can: In Above, the characters also raise the issue of history that is edited out, stories that are deleted and not spoken of. Canada has a bad history of removing people’s stories to benefit its own image. What stories do you feel we, as a society, are ignoring?

Leah Bobet: The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country.  I was taking some classes that threw light onto those issues at the time: one on First Nations languages and language revitalization, and one on First Nations women’s modern literature.  The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle.  It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.

But I was thinking about revisionist history in general: in relationships, in families as well as in nations.  Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves.  It’s always worth asking why.

As for stories we’re currently ignoring: I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask.  I’m aware that I live with a certain amount of advantages in my life, and that all kinds of things go on – experiences, injustices, needs, fears, loves – that I don’t see because of where and how I live.  It’d be a better thing, I think, if we all talked to each other a little bit more; talked to people who are living poverty, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, transphobia, and everything else – instead of asking the people who write about them.  We don’t and shouldn’t need spokespeople that way.  We should respect each other’s voices.

Spec Can: Trauma plays an important part in Above in the background of your characters and is important in forming their identities. Why is trauma such an essential part of this book?

Leah Bobet: Trauma’s a big player in Above mostly because of what I was interested in exploring: What we do to each other out of our own trauma, and where the limits of making room for trauma bump up against treating other people terribly.  The discourse on trauma in North American society is…well, it’s reasonably new, and so maybe a bit awful.  There’s not a lot of room between Walk it off! and treating trauma as a debilitating, central tragedy of one’s life; one that excuses everything after.  And like most binaries, there’s a lot of discussion to be had about the experiences that live in the middle.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “Realist” fiction can’t?

Leah Bobet: Nothing.  What a work of fiction can do depends on the author, the ideas, and how they use their tools.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian SF?

Leah Bobet: That’s, again, quite hard for me to say.  Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell.  Or some trait, like a genetic marker, that everyone we label as Canadian SF will have.

A few questions up, we talked about stories as community, and forming communities of choice instead of birth or geography.  I think this might be an outgrowth of that ability: My friend who really identifies with Japanese shoujo tropes can write her Japanese-influenced near-future literary fiction.  I can write my magical realist social justice and urban planning stories, with bonus! ruins and city gardening.  We live in the same city.  We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.

Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the characters and settings you create?

Leah Bobet: Well, they are Canadian.  That’s pretty much it: anything I consider a marker of Canadian literature in my own work – multicultural casts, quieter and smaller stories, that fixation with landscape as character – I’ve seen in works from other countries too, and it’s a somewhat narrow view of what Canadian fiction is and can do.

I’ve written characters and settings that were American, but I prefer to keep my stories above the border, just because this is home; it’s where my heart is.

Spec Can: What was it like to write about an intersexed character? What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?

Leah Bobet: It was on one level an intensely tricky experience – checking one’s assumptions and shorthands every step of the way, and I’m certain I still failed hir in a number of respects.  But on another level, it was like writing any other character, because sie’s…just a person: one who lives, loves, hates, chooses, and makes some intensely bad decisions for reasons that are not entirely hir own fault.  I made sure I wasn’t writing An Intersex Character™; that I was writing that person instead, at all times.

As for the inspiration: A friend of mine is a doctor, and back in her residency blogged privately about that experience, including delivering and dealing with the system around intersex children.  It stuck as something intensely painful and unfair, to the children and families both.  And so when I went to write a story about discrimination, the stories my friend told – and the issues around sex assignment within a week of birth – were at the top of my list to include.

Spec Can: What drew you to write Young Adult books? What can Speculative Fiction do for young people?

Leah Bobet: Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident!  When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel.  It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA.  I’m writing young adult deliberately now, on my current project, and it’s been a learning curve.

As for speculative fiction aimed at young adults, I don’t really feel like that concept needs to be sold to the public.  Most of what young adults read – and always have – has been speculative fiction, for the cold business reason that there have not been, until recently, genre shelves in the YA section of the bookstore.  Parents are generally content that young readers are reading, so YA books have always had a little more freedom to remix, blend, and use whatever genres they feel like.  It’s only when we reach the adult sections of the bookstore that anyone cares to get into slapfights about whose genre can beat up whose.

Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction authors bring more diversity into their work?

Leah Bobet: It’s a funny thing, that: Just do it.

Look at the characters you have in your work and ask how diverse they are.  If the answer doesn’t satisfy you, well, think of all the ways people can be diverse in real life, and start getting that in there.  Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours.  Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective.  When you get evidence that your informed imagining isn’t all there yet, don’t get mad and give up; revise the model to be better and clearer.  And then use that model as part of your storytelling kit.

But mostly?  Just do it.  Because a lot of hand-wringing goes on from writers who don’t feel themselves to be diverse about how on earth they will possibly write diverse fiction.  And that hand-wringing can ultimately be a way of putting off the job: of deciding it’s too hard, the same way someone can be “researching” a novel for years and never write a word.

So do it.  Commit yourself to thinking and learning.  And then do it better next time.

Spec Can: How do ideas of the mythic influence your work? What mythologies speak to you?

Leah Bobet: Subtly, I think.  I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly.  These days, though, there’s no separating the stories from the people; I’m a little too aware that “myth” is a word we use to describe dead cultural stories we’ve decided aren’t true, and I’m leery of it.  It’s a little too much like talking smack about someone else’s family.

I’m most interested – and probably because of that unbreakable association of mythic stories with the people whose stories those are, to whom they’re precious – in writing work that explores how people interface with those stories.  What do they mean to someone?  What’s the interaction this person has between their here-and-now concerns and the ineffable, and how can those things be made to balance, if at all?  Because they’re living stories, which means people live with them.  I’m most curious as to how.

I want to thank Leah Bobet for her incredible insights and for her discussion of the importance of narratives in the development of community. It is always great to interview an author that also works in the realm of advocacy.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet and her current projects on her website at http://leahbobet.com/ .