Interview with Diane Walton

An interview with Diane Walton
by Derek Newman-Stille

I had an opportunity to have a chat with Diane Walton, the managing editor of one of my favourite magazines, On Spec, a Canadian magazine of the fantastic. Diane has been with On Spec since its beginning. In addition to her editing duties, Diane Walton has published in the Northern Frights volumes, in On Spec’s own pages, and in the anthology Divine Realms. Feminist, speculative author, and fan of the fantastic, she is a fascinating character with some interesting perspectives on the Canadian fantastic.

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

Diane Walton: Always the tough question. I’ll give you a bunch of true facts and you can pick and choose.

  • Born in Montreal, descended from one of les filles du roi, (I have the family genealogy, courtesy of my mother). I am also told there are UEL ancestors on her side.
  • I’ve lived in 4 provinces, following my dad’s employment in the early years: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and now Alberta
  • I had dreams of being an actor, so I studied Theatre in university, but eventually went into teaching. That lasted one year, and then I joined the public service. One job led to another and then the government entered the computer age, eventually giving me some pretty marketable skills as a trainer and a technical writer and software tester. These days I do contract IT work.
  • I read my first SF book at the age of 13. The Stars Are Ours! By Andre Norton. I quickly cleaned out the SF section of the public library.
  • On Spec was not my first magazine. In the mid 70s I was a volunteer with Branching Out, Canada’s first feminist magazine.

Spec Can: You have been with OnSpec since its beginning and are currently Managing Editor. Can you provide readers with a bit of background about OnSpec?

Diane Walton: We started On Spec out of frustration, when no American magazines seemed interested in the type of spec fiction we Canadians were writing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that has certainly changed over the years, but we still provide a pretty good entry point for Canadian writers to get noticed. It’s a labour of love, and heavily dependent on government arts funding (at this point I must give thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Alberta Culture Multi-Media Fund for their support).

Spec Can: OnSpec is reaching its 25th anniversary. What were some of the things that motivated the origin of this brilliant magazine?

Diane Walton: As I mentioned above– frustration was a prime motivator. Also, there was a synergy here in Edmonton. We had editorial talent and leadership with Marianne Nielsen, artistic talent with Tim Hammell, our first cover artist and Art Director, and most important, the amazing desktop publishing skills of Jena Snyder, who could turn a bunch of words and pictures into an actual magazine. We also had connections with the then-small handful of SF writers in Canada, so when we put out a call for stories, they responded.

Spec Can: A lot of literary magazines in Canada tend to feature “realist” literature. What inspired the formation of a literary magazine that focuses on the fantastic?

Diane Walton: We are probably guilty of some snobbery here, since we originally wanted to differentiate ourselves from the rather predictable style of SF short fiction that seemed to be prevalent in the American magazines. In other words, we weren’t afraid of publishing obscure stories with “downer” or ambiguous endings from time to time. We looked for quirky works and diverse characters that pushed the envelope a bit, and took risks.

The “literary” aspect was, in part, because we had to put On Spec in a particular bucket to be able to get the funding we needed to publish, and literary was the way to get the dollars. Even now, when you look at the so-called “peer juries” for some grants we apply for, you see a lot of English Lit professors who edit poetry journals published under the banner of their particular academic institution. And those are the folks we have to convince each year that On Spec is worthy of funding.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult for us to actually BE literary. We wanted well-written literature and good storytelling that wasn’t too pretentious or self-indulgent. But it’s all subjective, isn’t it? We have still been accused by some grant juries of not being literary enough. You can’t please everyone.

Spec Can: What are some of the ideas that have shaped OnSpec over the years?

Diane Walton: What shapes the magazine is the amazing blend of people who have worked on it over the years, I think. For the most part, we do leave our egos at the door, and even when we argue over a story, we respect each editor’s opinion, and the magazine is all the better for that. So I’m not sure if this answers your question. We all just love good storytelling and the craft of writing.

Spec Can: What are some of the works that you have chosen for OnSpec that have really influenced you and changed your perspective?

Diane Walton: Now that is a very tough question. I can’t say that anything has managed to change my perspective, but some stories have moved me, and stick with me, even after many years.

My all-time personal favourite has to be Jim Gardiner’s “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large”. http://www.litmir.net/br/?b=123223&p=1

The story immediately struck me as the perfect On Spec story, and I remember having to convince the other editors at the time, that we should select it from the slush. I mean who doesn’t want a story about the end of the world? Several years ago, Jim told me that re-prints of that story have continued to make money for him. I still love to read it out loud to people.

Another story I love is Robert Weston’s “Mourning Sickness”, a work of magic realism where your grief over the death of a friend or relative is visible in the form of an avatar that increases in size according to the depth of your true feelings for the deceased.

Spec Can: OnSpec has done a great job in recent years of featuring stories about people who are under-represented in other Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror literature. What are some of the things that have inspired the editors to make sure that the magazine is more inclusive?

Diane Walton: It may be simply that we go for stories where the protagonist is facing more interesting and honest challenges than your average young healthy white male protagonist might face. We are all very sensitive to the “isms”—racism, sexism, age-ism, able-ism and the like. We definitely look for honesty in the works we buy, but at the same time, I don’t believe any of us is pushing any sort of agenda. (We have been accused of single-handedly preventing the advancement of the entire genre because we’re all prudes, but that’s another story.)

For us, it is all about the storytelling, and the multi-faceted characters who drive the stories. Diversity is sometimes just a bonus that comes with a well-crafted story of the fantastic that doesn’t necessarily rely on the tried and true tropes of the genre.

For example, when we started reading stories for the Apocalypse themed issue, we were all at a retreat together. And so we all got to see each editor’s immediate reaction to reading Camille Alexa’s “All Them Pretty Babies” , a story that examines the nature of what is beautiful. It was one of those moments when we all just knew we had a winner.

Spec Can: Short stories are often viewed as lesser media in our current publishing climate. People seem to look at short stories as stepping stones to the “real” literature of the novel. What are some of the great things that short stories can do differently than novels?

Diane Walton: I know that some writers depend on their published short fiction to open doors and get them on the radar of the book publishers like Edge and Tor, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One author even told me that was why they sent stories to On Spec—because our writers got noticed, and it opened doors when the novel manuscript was ready to submit.

Flattering, and yet kind of sad in some ways, because a talented short fiction writer will often concentrate on novels because that’s where they get noticed, and make some money. But the short story is such an elegant and challenging art form. A powerful short story can stay etched in your memory for decades after reading it. Harlan Ellison’s “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, for example. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a story that still can make me shiver. A short story needs to hit the ground running, and grab the reader’s attention without the “warm up act” that the first chapter of a novel can provide. A short story of any genre has to suspend a reader’s disbelief immediately, engage them with the character or characters, and make them WANT to know what is going to happen.

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian Fantastic fiction than American Fantastic fiction? What different themes, issues, and ideas tend to surface in the North?

Diane Walton: I am probably not the best person to ask this, partly because I don’t do a lot of reading for pleasure any more, and what I do read is extremely selective. I don’t pay attention to themes or issues. If anything, it is entirely possible that some influences from Canadian and British SF have made their way into the work of new American writers, as the genre becomes more and more global.

One the other hand, I bet more Canadian fiction has a stronger focus on something like a harsh winter and fighting the elements.

Spec Can: What are some things that readers and fans can be doing to encourage more reading of Canadian fiction and to support our own literary community?

Diane Walton: There is lots of information available online these days, and it’s ridiculously simple to Google phrases like “Canadian science fiction writer” and “Canadian science fiction magazine”. In fact I just did that, and the first thing was a Wikipedia list of Canadian SF writers, followed by a listing for Robert J Sawyer, and then followed by SF Canada, the professional organization that I’ve recently been elected Secretary-Treasurer of. Then the Aurora Awards are mentioned. Then the Sunburst Award. All very good sources of great books and authors a Canadian fan should get to know.

Spec Can: What would you like to see more of in Canadian SF fiction?

Diane Walton: I’d like to see less snobbery from the gatekeepers of the literary “establishment”, and then maybe top-notch authors like Guy Gavriel Kay would be on the short lists for mainstream prizes like the Giller and the GG where they deserve to be.

Spec Can: To finish our interview, what can readers do to find out more about your own work and about OnSpec magazine?

Diane Walton: Well, we do make a free sample available to download from our website www.onspec.ca , and the magazine is also ridiculously simple to buy in digital format from Weightless Books. https://weightlessbooks.com/format/on-spec-magazine-1-year-subscription-4-issues/  And of course we sell print subscriptions.

There aren’t many back issues of On Spec still available, but you can read some memorable stories from our early days, in On Spec:The First Five Years, still available from Edge Publishing. (That’s where you’d find “Muffin”) And this summer, our 25 year retrospective, Casserole Diplomacy and other Stories, will be published by our friends at Tyche Books. (“Mourning Sickness” is in that book, as well as other personal favourites.)

We’d like to think that once a reader has seen what we have to offer, they’ll be happy to keep us in the business of providing good reading for a while longer. We depend on word of mouth because our funding doesn’t give us enough to advertise, and so every new subscriber is gold for us. And while I have your readers’ attention, might I add that we are looking for sponsors and new sources of funding, so donations are always welcome.

To conclude, I wanted to add a quote: “A short story…can be held in the mind all in one piece. It’s less like a building than a fiendish device. Every bit of it must be cunningly made and crafted to fit together perfectly and without waste so it can perform its task with absolute precision. That purpose might be to move the reader to tears or wonder, to awaken the conscience, to console, to gladden, or to enlighten. But each short story has one chief purpose, and every sentence, phrase, and word is crafted to achieve that end. The ideal short story is like a knife–strongly made, well balanced, and with an absolute minimum of moving parts.” – Michael Swanwick

Thanks for this opportunity!

I want to thank Diane Walton for all of her insights and for taking the time to talk a little bit about Canadian short fiction and the nature of running a speculative magazine.

 

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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

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.

Year in Review: Speculative Fiction Versus Realist Fiction – from the authors

Alien mountieWell, we have had an amazing year in 2012 on Speculating Canada…. one could even describe it as a fantastic year. Although Speculating Canada has only been around since July, it has been an incredible opportunity to explore Canadian Speculative Fiction and explore the incredible amounts of knowledge that authors bring into the world and lens that they place on exploring social issues.

Re-reading all of the interview posts, I am reminded of how incredible these interviews were and the gems of information and insight that writers have provided. I hope you enjoy being re-enlightened by our authors. Every interview I have done has been an incredible learning experience for me.

claudegeo

Author photo courtesy of Claude Lalumiere

Claude Lalumiere:

”So many authors who work within realism do not realize that they are operating within the confines of a genre with very specific rules and tropes. I’m not a fan of realism’s hegemonic stature in literature and culture in general. There’s nothing inferior about romance (in the classical sense) or escapism. All fiction is literature, all fiction is art. That doesn’t mean that all of it is good, but there’s good stuff and bad stuff in all genres, including realism.

“Fantastic fiction (as I like to call it) does have the quality of seeming to have no restrictions whatsoever. And that journey into the unknown can be thrilling, dangerous, intoxicating, wondrous – or, best of all, all of that at once.”

“My fiction tends to ask questions, not provide answers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/interview-with-claude-lalumiere/

Steve Vernon:

Steve Vernon with a beaver... so Canadian!!

Author photo courtesy of Steve Vernon

“Monster stories help instill the belief that the human spirit can will out and triumph over the power of evil.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with seeing how ordinary people deal with the face of evil. That’s who my favorite characters are – just regular downhome kind of people. I like to imagine them brave and wild and romantic and full of life – because we all have that potential buried deep inside ourselves. So – when I sat down to write Sudden Death Overtime I just took the toughest people I had ever dreamed of and threw them up against the forces of darkness.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/interview-with-steve-vernon/

Ian Rogers:

Ian Rogers Author Photo, courtesy of the author.

Author photo courtesy of Ian Rogers

“I’ve always said that if people are only interested in my work purely as entertainment, then I’m cool with that. I think every story needs to keep the reader amused as the first goal. If your story is full of theme and depth, but it’s boring as all hell, then who cares how deep your work is, or how much inner meaning there is, because no one’s going to bother to read it anyway! And quite frankly, if you are consciously trying to pound a message or meaning into your story, I assure you it’s going to come across that way to the reader and they will be turned off. Guaranteed. The best stories with meaning or theme or depth are the ones that allow the readers to come to those conclusions naturally and on their own terms.”

“When I write a story I’m trying to come up with something that, while entertaining, also makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts or monsters, but it’s important that my characters do. Part of building a world where these things exist is to cement them in the world I know.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s the little things, and the little “real” things, that truly make a story. Sometimes it’s realistic dialogue, sometimes it’s a strange habit of one of the characters. Whatever it is, it’s usually a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making the reader feel more at home in the story, and consequently more accepting of the fantasy you’re trying to give them.”

“I think most people have an inherent attraction to the fantastical. Ironically, the spec fic stories I like best are the ones that are rooted in some semblance of reality. The ones that seem like they could actually happen. In terms of horror fiction, I find that sense of realism adds to the feeling of terror and dread.”

“I think there’s more to horror fiction that a monster or a supernatural element. Lots of things that may not seem horrific on the surface can be turned into a horror story. That’s one of the great things about horror. It’s insidious in the way it can sneak into a story — a story that might not be neatly slotted in the Horror section at the local bookstore.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/

Nancy Kilpatrick:

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

“We’ve become politically correct, which isn’t always repression.  Sometimes it entails a true acceptance of ‘other’, the ‘other’ being someone or something that is not us and previously was suspect and/or frightening.  Because we no longer see strangers as monstrous, we no longer see monsters as strangers.”

“I’m focused on readers first.  My readers are not run-of-the-mill people.  They are smart and like my dark take on material.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/interview-with-nancy-kilpatrick/

Paul Marlowe:

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

“There was a time when it was considered normal to imagine the future of Canada, and to work towards building that future. Now, with it more important than ever to imagine alternative futures, we avoid it, because taking the future seriously would require making drastic changes right now in the lifestyle of affluence and luxury we enjoy, and would require terrible sacrifices – like driving our cars less, or not taking that flight to Florida. We’ve grown used to thinking of sacrifice as someone else’s job.

“Speculative fiction has as one of its goals the imagination of alternative futures. It also reconsiders the past. Not infrequently it raises big questions. By sidelining it, and focusing exclusively on fiction dealing either with the present and the narrowly personal, or resuscitating yesterday’s controversies, we’re avoiding some of the major problems – like global warming, population, distribution of wealth, mass extinction, the ethics of technology, the role of government in pursuing the common good, the increasing alienation of people from their own governments, the individual vs the group, and threats to individual privacy – that will dominate history in the coming generations. While speculative fiction doesn’t exist simply to prophesy or to provide political stimulus, it offers the opportunity for those kinds of explorations.”

“By looking past immediate present experience at possible worlds, good SF can offer what is so needed but so little found: intelligent thought about the world beyond our own little rut. The problem it faces is whether anyone is interested in hearing what SF writers have to say, and whether – in the welter of distraction that we’re immersed in – stories make any real difference.”

“If SF is to have an influence not only on where Canada is heading, but on where humanity is heading, it will have to do something other than shock us will apocalyptic visions, since those have become entertainment. It will have to make us think.”

“If the books contain thought-provoking ideas, too, so much the better. In that environment, SF is not at such a disadvantage.”

“The criticism often levelled at SF by Lit types and by more literal-minded readers – that it is “mere escapism” – has less sting when directed at YA books because adults sometimes condescend to allow children the opportunity to indulge in frivolous pass-times, such as imagination.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/an-interview-with-paul-marlowe-about-the-wellborn-conspiracy-series/

IMG_2426

Author photo courtesy of Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith:

“I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.”

“If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.”

“Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.”

“I think that the [Speculative Fiction] genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

“That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/

Kelley Armstrong:

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University's Alumni House

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

“The supernatural can be a way of showing people dealing with issues in a larger-than-life fashion. I often have issues of identity in mine—finding one’s true self, accepting the self, finding one’s place in society. Having a character deal with being, for example, a werewolf lets me do that in a fun and entertaining way.”

“Speculative fiction helps expand the world of possibilities. Readers—and students—see new possibilities for new ways of thinking and living. The fact that it takes place in a fantastical world often makes it easier to consider those challenges and issues, divorced from the emotional baggage of a reader’s own world or experience. For example, science fiction novels often include elements of racism—how does one alien race treat another—and that allows readers to consider the issues in an abstract way and then transfer those ideas over to the realm of their own world and experience.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-kelley-armstrong/

Chadwick Ginther:

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

“People call speculative fiction “escapist,” as if that is a bad thing. I live a realistic life. Why would I want to spend my time writing about only the drudgery of everyday. I want things to happen. Things that couldn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean good prose has to be sacrificed for plot. With mythic fiction, and really all of speculative fiction, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have an exploration of deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. I can’t think of another art form that blends the two sensibilities better than speculative fiction does. Besides which, all fiction is fantasy. Even if a writer is basing a story on real events or real people, they are inventing thoughts and feelings and the little details. Fiction by definition isn’t true, but it can hold truth—even when you’re writing about the god of lies.”

“I don’t think Mythology will ever stop being relevant. It was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand. At their core, people have the same basic desires, faults and virtues as we ever have, some of us are kind, some jealous; we’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. Otherwise the myths would have faded with their original tellers.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/chadwick-ginther-interview/

P1050968

Author photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley:

“[Writing Speculative Fiction] can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

“At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.”

“The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/interview-with-karen-dudley-about-food-for-the-gods/

Liz Strange:

Photo of Liz Strange (Courtesy of Liz Strange)

Author photo courtesy of Liz Strange

“The monster is romantic and sympathetic, because it lives in all of us. Human beings are complicated, challenging, frustrating, wondrous beings, capable of many things both inspiring and horrifying.”

“I like my readers to be entertained, first and foremost, but I also like to spark some interest in things they may never have thought of before. I like to intrigue, incite curiosity and challenge people to think outside their comfort zone. The world is a big place, full of wonder, mystery, beauty and misery.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/interview-with-liz-strange/

Helen Marshall:

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

“Weird fiction, at its best, unsettles us. Realist fiction can also do that, but that isn’t necessarily its goal. I love the idea of a kind of writing designed deliberately to shock, to surprise, to unbalance and unnerve. It has a kind of intensity to it, and it makes us consider ourselves from oblique angles rather than head-on.”

“For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self. We leave things behind, and mostly those things are former versions of ourselves. It seems natural, then, that ghosts are also a figure for something that wants to be remembered, even if we want desperately to forget it.”

“What I try to do is find a bizarre premise and use it as a way into something that is deeply emotional: every new oddity ought to feel like a natural extension of the rules of the world. It feels like it fits. For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/interview-with-helen-marshall/

nina-fireplace-crop01-close2-web

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

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.”

“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.”

“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”.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/

Nancy Baker:

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

“At its best, horror and fantastic literature can show us the darkness that humans are capable of and to reveal that the reader shares that potential.  It can also show us that the “other” is sometimes as deserving of compassion as we hope that we are.”

“Vampire fiction has been used to look at issues of addiction, oppression, disease, predation, and sexuality.  It’s also been used just to scare the hell out of us.  Every new generation of readers and writers has the advantage of looking at what came before (from the classics such as Carmilla and Dracula to Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire to Twilight and The Passage) and reacting to it, either by emulating it or turning it on its head.

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/interview-with-nancy-baker/

Gemma Files:

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

“Because I work primarily in the field of horror, the idea of the Alien—the Other—is a really integral one, one which underlies an amazing amount of human psychology. You see it all through history, and it’s not like it’s gone away: This impulse to say some people are different and therefore lesser, undeserving of sympathy, actively malign—people we can call animals, monsters, and feel perfectly fine about routinely trying to contain, police, punish or even exterminate. But the flip-side of this impulse is the realization that “monsters”, Others, Aliens are almost never as different from you as they seem. That you, in fact, are most often a monster’s “monster”.

“This is a hard lesson, but a useful one, and Speculative Fiction explores it constantly, over and over. And it does that, I believe, because people both know in their gut that it’s true yet hope against hope that it’s not. This tension drives almost everything, and it’s testing this tension which is Speculative Fiction’s most useful quality, potentially: Our ability to tell and re-tell ourselves metaphorical fables about the things that are happening all around us, set in some pleasantly distant future, past or alternative universe, which may possibly help us to make good decisions about the here and now.”

“Magic is a fantasy of ultimate power in a mainly-powerless world, but our own self-knowledge quotient means that we know the shadow lurks underneath everything—that whatever good we do by magic means is bound to sour, especially if improperly paid for. We’ve all read most of the same fairytales, so the principles always seem familiar: Horror is fluid, and just like in folklore, the general principle of horror is not only that things can always change, but that if—when—they do, it’ll probably be something that you did which is the cause of that change. Which is sort of positive, in a way…therapeutic, almost. Monstrosity is not a permanent state, or doesn’t have to be, so long as one understands but doesn’t excuse one’s own nature and takes responsibility for one’s own actions.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/interview-with-gemma-files/

Jerome Stueart:

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

“Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.  Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation.  Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.

“Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering.  Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse!  Without any evidence.  It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence.  I saw that in both political parties.  If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count.  That scares me.

“Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures.  We’re all about reacting now.  We’re all about consuming.  We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast.  Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.”  We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture.  We may live together, but we don’t think together.

“I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

“I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

“The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths.  They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense.  So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.

“The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one.  And that I think is the most fun.  Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century.  We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen!  But at least it modeled diversity for us.  I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show.  He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change.  He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race.  So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.

“But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t.  SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction.  While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.“

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/

Noah Chinn:

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

“You’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.”

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/interview-with-noah-chinn/

Why SF is not so “Out There”

An Editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

I often hear from people that they can’t suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy SF, and I always find that amusing because… the real world is more bizarre, weird, and unbelievable than most SF authors could dream up.

We have all come from star dust in space that has spun off into a planet and eventually come to be turned into our bodies by, among other things, at one point in time being a puddle of goo from which all life originated. We are all mutants of that pile of goo, weird, freakish beings that have been changed physically over centuries due to being bombarded with cosmic radiation. That mutant goo also created, at one point, giant lizards, flying lizards, fish as big as a bus, mammals that can fly, swim, crawl above and below ground, and walk. And, if you need to see something really alien, look at the depths of the ocean….

We fuel our cars and machines with a shiny black liquid that comes from decomposed dinosaurs and other ancient dead things. We live in a world where every time we think we have found the smallest particle of matter… another smaller one pops up to surprise us.

And if none of that convinces you that reality is a science fictional, fantastic, magical, horrific place… I am compelled to point out… the platypus.

If you think that the Weird out there is far fetched, take a look at the Weird down here!

Interview with Karen Dudley About Food For the Gods

An Interview with Karen Dudley
By Derek Newman-Stille

I want to thank Karen Dudley for taking the time to do this interview. As someone with a background in Classical Studies, it is always exciting to hear about an author’s insights about the ancient Greek world. Karen Dudley is the Author of Food For The Gods by RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press). I will let her introduce herself.

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

Karen Dudley: Of course! My website says I’m a writer of fine novels, preparer of fine foods and all ‘round good egg, but apart from all that I’ve got a degree in Archaeology and Classical Studies, I’ve worked in field biology and advertising, and I’ve been reading ever since my Dad punished me by making me sit in the living room all afternoon with only a copy of Mary Poppins for company. I make great food in my kitchen and scented soap in my basement, I love a good laugh, adore the research end of writing, and I’ve been a sci-fi/fantasy/folklore/mythology buff forever. My vices are books and chocolate with almonds. I listen to opera in the concert hall and sing it in the shower. I drink tea instead of coffee, and more often than not, I am covered in cat hairs of various colours.

Spec Can: What got you interested in writing about the ancient Greek world?

Karen Dudley: It wasn’t so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’. When I was in university. I had the most amazing Greek history professor, Dr. R.J. Buck, who really brought the Classical period to life for me. The man was the master of understatement. Whenever he talked about the reasons behind a war, he always started off by saying something like, “Well, when someone steals your women and cattle, you’re liable to get a little cross about the whole thing.” He wouldn’t just give us dates and places for these armed conflicts, he’d act them out, marching up and down the classroom like a hoplite, talking the whole time about how ‘cross’ they all were with each other. He did tell us who won the Battle of Salamis and why, but he also told us about things like Alcibiades and the incident of the Theban dancing girls.  He made it real. I was hooked from then on.

Spec Can: What can the past tell us about the present?

Karen Dudley: A very great deal! There’s a marvellous quote by Carl Sagan which I’ve got hanging in my den. He says, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.”

Books really do break the shackles of time. At first glance, the past seems so distant, so far removed from our own reality, and yet when you read an old book—a book from the past—not only can you hear the author’s voice, but there is an immediate recognition of shared experiences, a realization that in many ways, the author is really not that different from yourself. It can close the distance of history, forge a connection with this ancient soul, and allow us to more deeply explore the human experience in our world.

I had a rather interesting moment with this when I was researching Food for the Gods. I had been reading a book called Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, which is basically all about the debaucheries of ancient Athens (clearly, a must-have reference book when one is working on a project of FFTG’s nature). Anyhow, I came across an account of a dinner party that had been held in Athens around 500 BC. Dinner parties—or symposions—were supposed to be dignified affairs where men would get together, eat food, discuss philosophy, and drink well-watered wine. But at this particular party, the wine had obviously not been watered quite enough and the participants were most decidedly three sheets to the wind.

They somehow got the notion that they were on a trireme (a Greek warship) and that there was a storm so they needed to eject the ballast. They started throwing all the furniture out onto the street to lighten the load—tables, couches, cushions, dishes, the lot. All the neighbours came to gawk, the officials came to see what was going on, and it was the talk of Athens for some days afterward. And from then on, that house was known as The Trireme.

Well, I read that and, remembering my own somewhat ill-spent youth, my first thought was, ‘Huh, I think I was at that party’. But more importantly, I felt an immediate connection with those ancient Greeks. It wasn’t just the wild party, it was the fact that the house was known as The Trireme afterward. It just seemed so funny, so understandable, so modern. And I realized then that people really haven’t changed much in 2500 years.

Spec Can:  What is the role of mythology in the modern world?

Karen Dudley: I think it plays a very important role in the modern world. Joseph Campbell once said that myths were “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life”. They explore how we live and die, how we are in the world. The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.

Spec Can: What is the role of humour in literature? What can humour do to change the perspective of a reader?

Karen Dudley: As I said before, I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level. I think it’s that ability to forge connections which makes humour so important in literature. Humour is quite distinctive from culture to culture and yet, even if we’re not from that culture, we can generally recognize and appreciate its jokes. Because of this, humour gives us insights into other people’s world experience and we can relate to them because of it. I love that. I used a lot of anachronistic humour in Food for the Gods not only because it’s fun, but because it also lends a sense of immediacy to the story and therefore better connects the reader with the characters and setting—despite the historical distance. After all, the ancient Greeks did not think of themselves as ‘ancient’.

Spec Can: What is your favorite ancient Greek author/ poet/ playwright?

Karen Dudley: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a lot of fun. In the play, Lysistrata is a woman who persuades the other women of Greece to withhold sexual favours from their menfolk unless the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. It’s bawdy and witty (the men walk around bent over as if in a wind storm), and a lot of fun. But I think my favourite poet would have to be Homer. When I was a kid, I saw a television production of The Odyssey. It was from Italy and, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the greatest adaptation, but I was completely, utterly entranced by it. My love of Greek mythology was born then and there, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for The Odyssey ever since.

Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence your work?

Karen Dudley: This probably hearkens back to the question about humour, but I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.

Spec Can: In what ways can mythology speak to the modern Canadian reader?

Karen Dudley: Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.

Spec Can: What role does research play in your writing?

Karen Dudley: Oh, it’s huge! I’m a bit of a research buff; I really enjoy that aspect of writing. And I’m probably a bit anal-retentive, so I need to get my facts straight. But I’ve also found that research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters. For example, I’d never heard of the dinner party-gone-bad that I mentioned earlier until I was doing research for Food for the Gods, so naturally, I had to open the book with that particular symposion (although I did throw a couple of gods into it for good measure). It worked out wonderfully! In fact, there is an author’s note at the back of Food for the Gods which talks a bit about my research process as well as which events and people in the book were real.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian mythic fiction is going from here?

Karen Dudley: I’m not sure if I can predict where it’s going; I know where I’d like it to go! I’d like to see more humour (too much mythic fiction takes itself far too seriously!), and more stories from traditions other than the Greco-Roman one that I was raised on. Obviously I love the stuff, but I think it would be really interesting to delve into some mythic fiction from a tradition that is totally foreign to me. I’ve always been intrigued by The Mahabharata…

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

Karen Dudley: It can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.

Spec Can: When writing your novel Food For the Godswhat were the biggest challenges as a modern reader getting into an ancient Greek mindset?

Cover Photo from Food For The Gods Courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley: In some ways, the ancient Greeks were a lot like us, but in other ways their culture and society seem quite foreign. I think the biggest challenge was how to explain differences in social mores and beliefs without slowing down the narrative (I am, after all, first and foremost, telling a story). I chose to do this in a humorous fashion with a series of interstitial chapters—everything from advertisements that look like they come from ancient Greek tabloids to excerpts from self-help scrolls. They’re goofy and funny, but they also impart some fairly crucial information for understanding the Athenian society of the Classical period.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add for our readers or anything I haven’t covered yet?

Karen Dudley: I guess the only other thing I’d like to add is to let everyone know that I do have a website, which I don’t update nearly often enough (though I’m trying to be better at this!): http://www.karendudley.com  I’m also on Facebook, which I use for professional purposes (i.e. go ahead and ‘friend’ me [https://www.facebook.com/karen.dudley.37604]!). And finally, I’d like to thank you, Derek, for ‘having me on the show’ as it were. Cheers!

I want to thank Karen Dudley for this fantastic interview and the chance to talk to another fan of the ancient Greek World and to get some of her exciting insights about the interrelationship between her sense of humour, her love of research, and her authorship. To find out more about Karen Dudley’s current projects, check out her website at http://www.karendudley.com . You can read my review of Food For the Gods posted on October 12, 2012.