Interview of Derek Newman-Stille about Speculating Canada on Lynda Williams’ Reality Skimming Blog

I have recently been interviewed by the Reality Skimming Blog, facilitated by the brilliant and wonderful Lynda Williams (author of the Okal Rel Saga). I was asked about what inspired me to create the Speculating Canada site, about the relationship between Canadian SF and mainstream Can Lit, about the role of SF to engage with questions of identity, the role of SF in bringing attention to social issues, and the role of Canadian small SF presses.

You can check out our interview at http://okalrel.org/interview-with-derek-newman-stille/

Thank you to Lynda Williams and Sarah Trick for this lovely interview.

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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 Nina Munteanu

An Interview with Nina Munteanu by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is both an author and a writing coach, sharing her gifts with other aspiring writers to help them to share their stories with the world. She is both an author and an ecologist, branching the worlds of science and fiction. Nina is tha author Darwin’s Paradox (and you can see the Speculating Canada review of this book posted on October 20, 2012), Angel of Chaos, and Outer Diverse. I will let Ms. Munteanu tell you a bit about herself below. 

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Nina Munteanu: I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to immigrant parents. The youngest of three children, I started writing and drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Even before I could read, I wanted to become a “paperback writer” like in the old Beatles song.

I’m a bit of a bohemian and enjoy wandering the world in search of the strange and wonderful. I come by my gypsy lifestyle quite honestly: 40% genetics (from both my passionate philosopher Romanian Dad and my wanderlustich explorer artistic/scientific Mom); 40% my upbringing (they were very supportive of my artistic pursuits) and 20% God’s will. I love them both dearly. They let me be who I was and because of that they helped shape what I now am: a loving mother; courageous artist; creative scientist; wandering explorer; everlasting child, trickster and storyteller; faithful student and enthusiastic teacher; judge and fierce advocate for the oppressed-ridiculed-and the silent; lover of all living and inanimate things and God’s humble servant.

After moving to British Columbia, I raised a family and taught science courses at the University of Victoria and Douglas College. I hold a masters degree in limnology and served for over 25 years as a research scientist and environmental consultant, writing technical reports and delivering research papers at conferences. I coach writers who want to publish their works and give workshops in various venues on writing and publishing.

In addition to eight published novels, I’ve written short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world. Darwin’s Paradox (Dragon Moon, 2007) was the recipient of the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award and the Delta Optimist Reader’s Choice. Its prequel Angel of Chaos was a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year in 2010. I regularly publish reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. I also serve as staff writer for several online and print magazines. I was assistant editor-in-chief of Imagikon, a Romanian speculative magazine and now serve as editor of Europa SF a site dedicated to the European SF community. Outer Diverse (Starfire, 2011) the first of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, is now an audiobook with Iambik (2012). My latest book The Last Summoner (Starfire, 2012) is a historical fantasy. Inner Diverse and Metaverse are due this December and early next year, respectively.

Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you are also an ecologist. What is it like to balance these two interests? How do they influence or support each other – i.e. do you find your fiction writing influences the way you look at ecology and do you find that your practices as an ecologist influence your fiction work?

Nina Munteanu: Definitely. My fiction and my ecology have co-evolved in a synergistic way. My interest in ecology stems from my interest in preserving this planet as well as my fascination for how Gaia works; these themes pervade most of my fiction and much of my non-fiction articles and essays.

The science of ecology studies relationships more than any other science. It looks at how things relate to one another. Ecology is the study of communities and ecosystems and how these interact in a global setting. Science fiction writing explores the interaction of humanity with some larger phenomenon involving science. Robert J. Sawyer calls it the fiction of the large. Large ideas, large circumstance, large impact. Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.

My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.

I just wanted to add (almost as post script here) that, as a writer, I distinguish ecology as a science from most other hard sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics). Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.

Spec Can: What role does SF have in advocating for ecological awareness and curiosity about environmental issues?

Nina Munteanu: Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity.  Critic Frederic Jameson posits that the literature of “science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself.” The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).

Cover photo of Darwin’s Paradox courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Spec Can: Your novel Darwin’s Paradox shows an intense interest in the experience of the outsider and the role of the media in casting certain groups as abject or ‘lesser’. What inspires your interest in the outsider and what have you noticed about the role of media in influencing what society considers socially desirable or the biases that develop?

Nina Munteanu: I honestly can’t say why, but I have always championed the downtrodden, misunderstood and outcast. I remember in primary school making a point of defending and befriending a young girl who was ridiculed by my peers (just because she was French Canadian and very poor). It seemed to be a calling.  Maybe I’m just an INFJ, like Chaucer, Goethe and Joan of Arc (giant grin).

I find the concept of “the outsider” fascinating from a psychological perspective. How we treat the unknown (e.g., with suspicion and fear or with wonder and curiosity) tells so much about who and what we are. The tension of this interaction not only makes for excellent and compelling story but serves an excellent platform to study our psyche.

Several of my books explore my fascination with mind-control, the use of propaganda and influence of the media on the population at large. It fascinates me how people in general can so easily be swayed by what they read or see (with some exception, we are not taught in school to question what we are told and to research for ourselves). There’s something out there that I call the “they say phenomenon”; it’s rampant, particularly now with “expertise” being re-defined through the Internet. Everyone seems to have an opinion of an issue, but when you ask them how they got it, “they” is invoked… “they say”… Who are they? No one seems to know…

We are a fickle, multiplexing busy culture who want it now, fast, easily digestible—and already summarized. Letting others decide for you what is newsworthy is so dangerous; it spawns gossip and feeds into propaganda. The example of the Nazi posters of Jews with long noses should be a reminder of where such things can lead.

I find much of what media does is seduce us to hand over our freedom through insidious tyranny of the mind. I studied George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as allegories in high school. While they still serve their purpose as dystopian cautionary tales, their concepts have already been in use. The trick to the successful implementation of mind control on a massive scale is 1) introduce concepts and related technology in ways that appeal to the public: in the guise of a service (e.g., Joe Public uses his RFID for safety but the government uses them to track his every move; Jane Public uses her Safeway card to get points but Safeway uses her information to better market its products); 2) introduce the changes in small steps (the analogy of the lobster in the boiling pot). When I read Orwell’s 1984 I never thought we would ever sanction such intrusive surveillance. Now, there’s a surveillance camera on every street corner, every storefront and inside every commercial building and hallway. The only place there isn’t one is in your home. Or is there???

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

Nina Munteanu: The science fiction genre is the pre-eminent literature of allegory and metaphor. By describing “the other” (what does not yet exist, what might never exist) science fiction writers describe “us”. Through our POV characters and their world’s reactions to the unknown.

Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.

Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence the worlds you create?

Nina Munteanu: Quite a bit, actually. It’s a wonderful and interesting question that had me pondering quite a while—just like a Canadian—to respond. I feel a strong Canadian identity and I’m certain it imbues my main characters and the cultures I portray. Firstly, I make a point of using Canadian places as settings for my fiction (if set on Earth, that is).

I like that Robert J. Sawyer, back in the 1980s, either set part of his novels in Canada or made at least one of his main characters a Canadian. This was in a time when it wasn’t vogue for a large American publisher to set your novel outside the USA unless it was some place globally recognized, like Paris. Sawyer wasn’t the only one; other notable Canadian SF authors who set their stories in Canada include Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow and Guy Gavriel Kay.

Cover photo of Outer Diverse courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Most of my novels are set at least partly in Canada, even my space adventure, the Splintered Universe Trilogy.  In the trilogy, detective Rhea Hawke travels to Quebec, where she encounters her past. Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe. The trilogy features over thirty alien cultures, worlds and species. I used both my ecological background and my own multi-cultural background to create it.

Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Nina Munteanu: It tends to be darker and more reflective. With fewer happy endings… LOL! Who else but a Canadian would write a science fiction romance with a tragic ending? When I wrote The Cypol (Extasy Books) I discounted the protocol of the romance genre for happy endings. The Canadian publisher accepted the novelette, which says a lot. Even though the critics liked it, romance fans hated the book. LOL! I think that Canadian SF authors bring a dark edge to the genre that slides a bit into literary fiction. Again, perhaps why Booker prize-winner in literary fiction Margaret Atwood finds herself writing speculative fiction. Her works are a good example of what Canadian SF writers do best: infuse meaningful reflection and deep allegory in speculation. I think much of Canadian speculative fiction springs from our multi-cultural and northern setting.

Spec Can: What important role can curiosity play in creating a better future?

Nina Munteanu: Curiosity is a wonderful trait to cultivate. When you’re curious you step outside of yourself into a wonderful world. One of the things I re-learned from my son was how to stop and look. Really look, as in bend down on hands and knees and peer close, get dirty. Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks. It gives us courage to move and act. It helps direct us and self-correct. A great person once said that there is nothing disinteresting in the world; only disinterested people. If we all expressed interest in our world—instead of focusing on ourselves—I think we’d find it a much better place. One with less worry, conflict and war.

Spec Can: Darwin’s Paradox deals with the intersection of humanity and technology. What role do you see technology playing in our future?

Nina Munteanu: Technology is a wonderful tool. Tools, of course, reflect their user. So a tool can give aid in one case or be wielded as a weapon in another. This is the paradox of technology. In Icaria, the biotech world of Darwin’s Paradox, even people are considered tools (veemelds, bioengineered with the ability to meld with the machine community) to be used and abused according to the whims and insecurities of its Technocratic politicians.

I see technology playing a more dominant role in our society as we embrace its integration more and more. I’m thinking of wearable AI, intelligent homes, vehicles and roads, biotechnological implants that will make communication seamless and immediate or heal colds through nano-technology. Back in the 1980s, when I wrote my first draft of Angel of Chaos (prequel to Darwin’s Paradox) in which everyone wore a Vee-set (computer & communication device) on their head, there were no cell phones and certainly no Bluetooth devices in existence. Now, we don’t think twice when we see someone walking down the street talking to “themselves”.

Spec Can: Your work often deals with the collision of past and present and the way that our pasts continue to influence us no matter how much we try to escape from them. What inspires your interest in the lingering of the past?

Nina Munteanu: I like to explore the nature of causality, destiny, fate and free-will and how these interact in the hard choices we must often make with our limited perception. This is something I investigate much further in my latest book, a historical fantasy about parallel universes and splitting realities: The Last Summoner. In the story, the young hero Vivianne discovered that she was unable to alter History the way she’d intended. She found to her dismay that every time she set out to alter a crucial event, quirky consequences ensued and events did not yield to her clever manipulations—as though History had an uncooperative conscience and a predetermined destiny to fulfill. So, I ask the question: what if History (as in any realized reality) is predetermined through its harmonic relationship with other realizable realities? Given that all mass and energy is governed and expressed through frequency, and given that in physics (and music) frequencies exist as multiples of some fundamental frequency; then does it not follow that threads of realizable realities, intertwined around a fundamental path (of history), would move inexorably toward a common destiny?

Our past follows us like a shadow. Who we are is very much a function of our past (our upbringing, our education, culture, parental guidance and experiences of childhood and adolescence) and more; what we do with that is fascinating and compelling. Do we enslave ourselves to our past? Or do we learn from it and move on into the future? Do we fatalistically wait for destiny to unfold or do we create our own? But then, what about quantum mechanics and harmonic frequencies? What about karma, reincarnation, quantum entanglement, morphic resonance and the extended mind? Is that destiny?

More and more, I’ve become fascinated by the interrelatedness of things in space-time, particularly in ways that can’t be explained. Coincidence, precognition, déjà vu—these all appear to play a shadow-dance with each other. Quantum mechanics shows us that not only is “solid” matter made up mostly of energy and “empty” space but what makes a solid a chair vs. you sitting on it is the vibration of its energy. Quantum science has demonstrated that light and matter are made of both particles and waves and can exist in two simultaneous states: Schrodinger’s cat…quantum entanglement or non-local connection, the notion that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart. And what does it mean when solid flows, ghost-like, through itself under certain conditions? In my trilogy Splintered Universe one person’s past is another’s future. And where they meet…perhaps in dreams.

Spec Can: Your work employs scientific discourse, while being completely literary. In what ways can science and the humanities speak to one another?

Nina Munteanu: Through the literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy. These genres explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.

Spec Can: Darwin’s Paradox explores the politics of fear and the use of fear as a mechanism for social control. What inspired your interest in this area? What should we, as a society, be concerned about regarding political uses of fear?

Nina Munteanu: Tyrants have always used fear as their primary tool to enslave a population. There is nothing like fear to motivate us. Fear of heights, of the dark, of failure, of change, of the unknown. Letting fear rule us spawns prejudice, racism, conformity and conservatism, and even tradition.

History has provided us with so many examples of how governments used fear to motivate its citizens, either through subversion (e.g., by pointing to an outside enemy, the “other”; e.g. the Jews in Nazi Germany and Poland; Taliban terrorists in the USA) or open oppression (e.g., dictatorship of Ceausescu in Communist Romania). While the latter is of course dreadful, it is the former that we must be so mindful of. It is far more insidious. Subversive use of fear allows shape-shifting politicians in the guise of “doing good” to do evil.

Spec Can: You have also coached and offered resources to aspiring authors. What is it like to mentor new authors and what is one of your most memorable experiences coaching an author?

Nina Munteanu: I’ve been teaching biology in college and university since the 1980s. There’s something very special about mentoring and helping turn on lights, particularly creative lights.  I’ve helped so many writers find their confidence and their way to get closer to publication. It’s very rewarding to see that. And when they get their first book out, that’s even more cool!

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Nina Munteanu: None except to say thank you for a wonderful interview and thought-provoking questions. I really enjoyed answering them.

I want to thank Nina Munteanu for this wonderful interview and for sharing her insights with readers. It is always a pleasure to interview such insightful people. One can easily see what a fantastic educator as well as writer she is. 

You can explore Ms. Munteanu’s website at http://www.ninamunteanu.com/

Upcoming interview with Nina Munteanu on Tuesday November 27th

Nina Munteanu is an author, ecologist, and writing coach, combining the worlds of science and fiction while sharing her love of authorship with aspiring authors. On Tuesday November 27th, check out our interview with Nina Munteanu and share in some of her insights about the interrelationship between science and science fiction, the importance of an awareness of ecology, the role of SF in promoting creative problem-solving, the role of SF in reminding us of the consequences of our actions, and the importance of the search for the strange and wonderful.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Nina Munteanu: “Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks.”

Nina Munteanu: “I’m a bit of a bohemian and enjoy wandering the world in search of the strange and wonderful.”

Nina Munteanu: “the literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “My fiction and my ecology have co-evolved in a synergistic way. My interest in ecology stems from my interest in preserving this planet as well as my fascination for how Gaia works; these themes pervade most of my fiction and much of my non-fiction articles and essays.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing.”

Nina Munteanu: “Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness.”

Nina Munteanu: “I find the concept of “the outsider” fascinating from a psychological perspective. How we treat the unknown (e.g., with suspicion and fear or with wonder and curiosity) tells so much about who and what we are.”

Nina Munteanu: “We are a fickle, multiplexing busy culture who want it now, fast, easily digestible—and already summarized. Letting others decide for you what is newsworthy is so dangerous; it spawns gossip and feeds into propaganda.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society.”

Nina Munteanu: “Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

So, stay tuned for this interview with Nina Munteanu on Tuesday, November 27th to get a quick reminder of the importance of SF and its ability to promote change and creative thought in the sciences.

You can explore Ms. Munteanu’s website at http://www.ninamunteanu.com/ . And, check out my review of Nina Munteanu’s Darwin’s Paradox posted on Speculating Canada on October 20, 2012.