INTERVIEW: Ken Liu, author of “The Perfect Match”

Ken Liu’s interview in which he talks about the genesis of “The Perfect Match,” appears in the December issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

INTERVIEW: Jennifer Pelland, author of “Personal Jesus”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Personal Jesus” is a story about what could happen if a Fundamentalist United States found a way to use implantable technology to keep its citizens in line.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Jason Sizemore invited me to submit a story to the anthology Dark Futures: Tales of Dystopic SF that he was editing. It was early 2009, and the Tea Party movement was in the process of marrying the remnants of the Moral Majority. I looked at the America that they wanted to create, and it scared the crap out of me.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Not in the least. Someone once told me to “write what scares you.” Politically and personally, I was terrified, so the words just flowed.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I’m a bisexual woman who wants autonomy over my own body, and I’m an atheist who wants autonomy over my own beliefs. I have many friends who are pagan, trans, kinky, and other things that horrify the religious right. So I take it very personally when people say that me and my friends don’t deserve the same right to be ourselves as they do.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

This one was completely research-free, as is probably evident.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I’m a pessimist at heart, and I find it tremendously therapeutic to create or watch/read tales of things gone horribly wrong. For starters, if I can imagine something that terrible, then I can prepare myself for a reality that’s likely not going to be that bad. But also, it’s a great antidote to all the perky positive crap out there that just makes me want to gag. Yes, it’s lovely to imagine a world with a happy ending lurking behind each bush, but we don’t live in that world. On a large scale, we live in a world where we’re too short-sighted to clean up our act before we poison our planet beyond repair. We live in a world where people kill each other over religion, ethnicity, resources, lines on a map. And on a small scale, we live in a world where good people get inoperable cancer, or discover that they’re carrying a fetus without a brain, or lose everything they own because a bank made a stupid error that they legally aren’t liable for. Plenty of people don’t get happy endings in life. Why should everyone get them in fiction?

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

I grew up on 1984, so that will always loom large in my mind as a classic. Also, being an adolescent in the 80s meant I was exposed to a lot of nuclear horror, like The Day After and Threads. I wouldn’t count either as entertainment, but they were both brutally necessary for the time, and I’m glad I watched them at an impressionable age. Growing up in the 80s also means that I love Terminator and Blade Runner more than is probably healthy. As for literature, no one does it better than Octavia Butler. I know most people would point to Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents when talking about dystopias, but I think a stronger case can be made for her Xenogenesis Trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood). Each novel left me feeling more bleak and hopeless than the one before it. They’re absolutely incredible pieces of literature.

INTERVIEW: Tobias S. Buckell, Author of “Resistance”

In your own words, please briefly describe the plot of the story.

When the inhabitants of a space station using a live voting techno-democracy fail to pay close attention to what they’re doing and end up with a dictator in charge, they end up having to hire a mercenary to fix the results of their experiment.

Please talk about the genesis of the story, how you came to write it, where the idea came from, etc.

A lot of my more politically minded friends, of various political persuasions, are always frustrated with the fact that things don’t get done their way, or even quickly. I think a lot of Americans forget that many institutions in the US are designed to slow down, muddle, create compromise, and otherwise add checks to the mob mentality of democracy or the fast actions of a single individual. In an ideal situation everyone is frustrated and making compromises in a democracy: it shouldn’t be easy. But that isn’t to say that the appeal of a prime actor that gets things done in a way frustrated voters in a democracy don’t get isn’t seductive, I just wanted to point out that those people are called dictators.

Please tell me about–or rather introduce the readers to–the protagonist.

Our protagonist is a maintenance engineer aboard the space station this takes place on, who’s been recruited into the resistance faction that wants to take down the dictator.

Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges (i.e., was it particularly difficult to write, etc.)? If so, please tell me about that.

Since we were to write a story about the importance of voting (and therefore self-rule), I didn’t want to be preachy. I did my best to present the argument that the desire for a fast-acting dictator is a seduction all voters get a taste of.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

This was a personal story because it’s darn close to being political for me, which is that I have gotten frustrated by listening to people in the states, where I am a permanent resident and therefore can’t vote for the president, indicate basically a desire for a strong person of their political persuasion (whatever that may be) who could basically cow the opposition and enact all the neat rules that those people think are right and could turn the country into a Utopia. I think it’s a dangerous belief. I remember teaching a class here in the mid-West to college students, a large majority of them opined that it was God that put the last president in office and should keep him there for as long as needed. I asked how that was different from the divine right of Kings in Europe and why bother with a democracy then? They had no answer for me.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

A bit too much life experience?

Anything else you’d like to add?

I was born in 1979, during a coup de etat in Grenada. I carry some of my first memories as being from 1983, during the invasion of Grenada to overthrow the government. In 1979 the revolution started with high hopes and big plans. But as time dragged on some consolidated power, and with their sweeping reforms, also fell into the spiral of quashing opposition to the point where it became draconian and people ended up lined up against walls and shot. As a result, I have an inbuilt distrust of sweeping reforms and powerful individuals in politics.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I think dystopia allows writers to hold up a mirror to our world and say “if this goes on…” That’s one of the classic reasons for writing it: to warn about trajectories within society. But I think the reason readers can enjoy even the grimmest dystopia is that it does, even when being a piece of social criticism, embed a certain amount of escapism in it. Both the sort of “things are still okay now” sort of comparisons that we can make as readers, and sometimes a sort of ‘if everything fell to pieces, what sort of crazy adventures would transpire’ type of narrative.

I personally enjoy the “what if” game of playing out a scenario and trying to dig a little deeper into it. If “such and such” continues, what happens next?

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Stand on Zanzibar, Blade Runner (the movie), 1984, and a host of post-nuclear-apocalypse short stories from the 50s. I think the nuclear dystopian fiction interested me because I became an adolescent right as the Berlin Wall fell and people stopped worrying about this defining, over-the-horizon fear: that a nuclear exchange would render life on Earth dystopic. As a result, I wonder how much the constant stoking of these fears by this fiction worked to help us dodge it. I recall reading an article that former president of the US Reagan used to believe a nuclear war was doable until seeing the TV miniseries The Day After, and changed his mind about that whole stance. So, I guess, go Team Dystopia!

INTERVIEW: Matt Williamson, Author of “Sacrament”

What’s your story about?

Terrorism; torture; ad creep; the debasement of religion.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

For capturing the horror, sadness, and absurdity of modern life, you can’t do better than the dystopian stories of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. Saunders, in particular, seems to get everything: the way that isolated, onanistic, mechanistic pleasure-seeking has replaced human connection; the way that corporate values have replaced morality; the way in which our consumer preferences have come to completely define our identities; the way that marketing has perverted and corrupted language and culture, and pretty much rendered art itself meaningless; the profound hopelessness that you can feel while being entertained. That Saunders can write about this stuff and make you laugh is some sort of miracle.

Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier’s two collaborations, Robocop and Starship Troopers, still impress me as two of the smartest, toughest, and most prescient SF works in any medium from the last 25 years. They’re no longer ignored—Starship Troopers, against all odds, has started creeping into the canon—but they’re still underappreciated and frustratingly misunderstood.

INTERVIEW: Adam-Troy Castro, Author of “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Of A Sweet Slow Dance In the Wake of Temporary Dogs” is about a delightful, joyous land called Enysbourg where life is an (almost) nonstop celebration. Alas, the happiness to be found there comes with a price tag most won’t want to pay.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I sometimes generate story ideas by altering well-known phrases in bizarre ways, and seeing what unusual concepts pop up. This time I took Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War and came up with a contrasting premise, “The Intermittent War.”

For a long time I had no idea what to do with that, until 9/11 struck and, for a while, I encountered people who said that they couldn’t ever imagine going to New York City ever again. (Ten years ago, some people were actually saying that.) I couldn’t understand that kind of thinking, and could only respond that New York was so exciting, so rich, so vibrant, so much a feast for the heart and for the senses, that if anything 9/11 made me want to be there even more.

From there it was a short jump to the well-known phenomenon of homelands torn apart by disasters both natural and man-made, that people love too much to ever want to leave. “Temporary Dogs” was an exercise in upping the contrasts.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The war-torn middle third was rough — I had to keep horrifying myself — but the actual toughest part to finish was the wrapup, which I considered done until my then-future wife, Judi, insisted that I had not fulfilled all of my obligations to the character of Caralys. The story had to be about her as well as to my male protagonist.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

A true dystopia is a world intolerable even if some of the people there have been fooled into believing that they’re happy. The world created in the course of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” is as nightmarish as any ever created, even though — as he takes pains to point out — it comes complete with a surgical solution that will force you to be happy even if that means you also lose everything special about you. (I’d probably take the operation, but that would be a form of personality suicide). Robert Silverberg’s orgiastic The World Inside is a dystopia that might actually be a blast, for a long weekend, though I understand why further exposure would be soul-destroying. Walter Tevis’s  Mockingbird and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are nightmares for the inveterate reader. I also have to mention George Orwell’s 1984, where life was not fun for anybody, and Harlan Ellison, ” ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” for sheer passion.

INTERVIEW: Carrie Vaughn, Author of “Amaryllis”

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I think dystopian fiction appeals to people for a lot of reasons.  Many of the stories have a “hero against the system” plot that’s just basic good storytelling.  There’s a kind of wish fulfillment — our lives in the modern western world may not look as bad as the average dystopian system, but who hasn’t dreamed of rising up and leading a rebellion against everything that’s wrong with the world?

Dystopian fiction has so many elements:  the science fictional world-building.  The horror of the thought experiment that projects just how bad things can get.  The element of satire — a good satire is difficult to pull of but beautiful to behold when done well, and I’m not sure you can have dystopian fiction without satire, from Thomas More on up to the present.

I didn’t set out to write a dystopian story with “Amaryllis,” so I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question.  I actually meant it to be hopeful — things may get bad, but people will survive and hang on to a basic level of community.  Everyone in the story is actually working to uphold the system, and I’m not sure they’d feel that they’re living in a dystopia.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Well, where to start?  The classics are classic for a reason.  Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is still beautiful and terrifying.  I love Huxley’s Brave New World for its sheer relentlessness — it has so much going on and there’s just no way out.  The sucker-punch satire of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” (I even liked the movie version starring Sean Astin.)  I haven’t read a lot of current dystopian fiction, though I know there’s a ton of it out there.  Dystopia as it intersects with the zombie apocalypse trend is awfully fascinating.

I’m a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s work because a lot of it does what I like about good dystopian fiction — they’re cautionary tales, but the characters usually aren’t aware that they’re living in a dystopia.  Part of the horror (for us, the audience) is that they’ve never known anything different, and to them this is just how the world works.

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Read more about the background of “Amaryllis” in Lightspeed Magazine‘s Author Spotlight on Carrie Vaughn.

INTERVIEW: Sarah Langan, Author of “Independence Day”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Independence Day” is about a young girl inhabiting a world on the verge of extinction. She’s a teenager, so she’s got a lot of anger and doesn’t see clearly enough to know that the bureaucratic state is her enemy, not her father.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I was working on an homage to the musician Bruce Springsteen. I couldn’t decide on a particular song, and decided instead on what I thought was the essence of Springsteen; standing up, and fighting for what you believe in a screwed-up world.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The story came pretty fast because I was engaged by the material. I gave it to my workshop, who helped me realize that I had an unnecessary character, but otherwise, the process came surprisingly easily.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Unlike Springsteen, my relationship with my father is very simple. He and my mother have always been my strongest supporters. He’s also a very contrary person, who says what he thinks and accidentally makes all kinds of enemies. I like that about him, though sometimes the comedy is not immediately apparent. This story was inspired by him, and I wrote it for him.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I’ve studied a lot of environmental science and read a lot of dystopian literature, so again, this came pretty easy. I like the idea that corporations become so greedy that they first poison human lungs, then force their cheap, plastic replacements. I was also thinking a lot about health care, which is a total mess right now. We might as well have computerized doctors who scramble our brains and give us morphine. It would probably be more effective than the services we currently receive.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Dystopias represent the most exaggerated versions of the world be currently inhabit. They make us see the obvious more clearly. Sometimes they’re not even exaggerations. I mean, ever try to get a service from Verizon? You could spend the rest of your life on the phone with those fools, and still get no satisfaction. Or how about the air surrounding ground zero after 9-11? They reopened Wall Street and told everybody who worked down there that it was safe, because the nation couldn’t survive without the stock market. At my office, I got a crappy, Duane Reade mask to breathe through six days after I’d returned—two weeks after the towers fell. The fires were still burning, and my desk was covered with dust. We’re living in a dystopia.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Kafka’s The Trial, because it reads like I feel when I call Verizon, or try to get my health insurance to pay for a check-up. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep> And Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, because Philip K. Dick is the man, and he gets the human element of social collapse.  Walter Tevis’ brilliant Mockingbird, because it gets everything right, and is a perfect book in every possible way. The Handmaid’s Tale, because it is both satisfying on a narrative level, and empowering for the ladies. Hunger Games—it’s Stephen King’s Running Man, only with more heart, and joy. Finally, Fahrenheit 451, because Montag is a very good name.

INTERVIEW: Genevieve Valentine, Author of “Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?” is about a near-future dystopia in which, among other social policies, a common and effective tool of control is seemingly-informational propaganda videos, and what happens when people start to question what’s presented as the truth.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

There are an endless collection of 1950/60s “informational” films available online, covering everything from how to attend prom to how to protect against nuclear fallout. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 did an excellent job of holding several of these up for what they were (some of the greatest unintentional comedy ever), but the idea that, at one time, they had been taken in all seriousness becomes more chilling the more you watch; you begin to realize that whoever distributed these videos worked with equal fervor telling you how to give a speech in public and how to escape a nuclear blast, and just because we know it’s bunk now doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective propaganda then.

It was a short path from there to writing about their resurgence; I wouldn’t be surprised if several news channels are on the verge of implementing them already.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I have watched a truly obscene amount of short instructional films in the making of this short story. (Some of them were just for fun; some of them were because I just could not look away.)

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I think the main reason people write dystopian fiction is because it allows a writer to apply the sparkly mantle of fiction to often-pointed critique that might be written off as conspiracy theory or slammed as attack on the government if presented as nonfiction. (“You Guys, We Will Be Completely Screwed by Invasive Government in the Near Future — I am Guessing 1984-ish” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

It also has the advantage of being a world in which your character can face any number of governmental perils, which always makes for a good yarn.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

There are some really amazing examples across the board, from Brave New World straight on through Little Brother, but my all-time favorite is still The Handmaid’s Tale. I read that when I was in middle school; scared me pantsless then, scares me pantsless now.

INTERVIEW: Heather Lindsley, Author of “Just Do It”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Well, in the past I’ve only gone so far as to say it’s about desire and how easy that is to manipulate.  But I’ll go a bit further and say I was also thinking about the ongoing conflict between doing the right thing and doing the comfortable, pleasurable thing.  It’s about having a compelling excuse to take the easier, ethically questionable path.  To just do it and blame somebody else’s chemical.  To think of yourself as the good guy while enjoying champagne with the bad guy.  To me that’s even more dangerous – and a shorter road to dystopia–than mass behavior modification, which is plenty scary on its own.

What was the genesis of the story?what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I wrote it at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, so that was the prompt–Must Write Story!  I’d been mulling over the idea for about a month before that, but hadn’t written anything down yet.  I don’t remember the exact moment of inspiration, but it probably had something to do with the enticing smell of fast food french fries colliding with the memory of a greasy lump in my stomach.  

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

No, it wasn’t, and I wish I’d appreciated that at the time.  I’d been writing plays and drafting novels before attending Clarion West, but I hadn’t written a short story since junior high.  I’ve had maybe one or two other stories so far that have flowed out as easily as “Just Do It.”  Everything else has felt assembled, which isn’t as much fun.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

It didn’t feel all that personal while I was writing it, not in the way a few of my other stories have.  It’s probably one of the least personal, actually.  But after the fact I can look at the themes and say, “Oh, yeah–I see where that came from.  That’s what I’m thinking about. That’s what I’m afraid of.”  

It’s rare for me to deliberately model characters on people I know or use incidents that have actually happened to me (of course I can’t vouch for what my subconscious is up to).  But the themes–those are probably more revealing than I’d like.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Not much.  It’s sufficiently near-future that it’s really more about paying attention than doing research.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers?or you yourself?write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Well, it’s easier than writing about utopias, which are practically impossible.  If just one person in a utopia is discontent, it’s not a utopia.  But there are usually a few lucky and/or twisted people sitting at the top of dystopia for whom it’s the best of all possible worlds, and that doesn’t make it any less a dystopia.  And If drama is about conflict, then dystopias are little drama farms. You can pluck drama out of the details; you can even use the entire culture as an antagonist.  

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

You’re probably sick of hearing about these two, but when I was 15 I read 1984 and Brave New World one right after the other.  Orwell builds his dystopia on deprivation, pain, and destruction, while Huxley starts with abundance, pleasure, and absorption.  Reading them like tbat made it pretty clear dystopia can come from any direction.

INTERVIEW: James Morrow, Author of “Auspicious Eggs”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Auspicious Eggs” is essentially a thought experiment. What if you took a key piece of anti-abortion rhetoric – “the rights of the unborn” – and pushed it to extremes? Hence my dystopia’s collective obsession with “the rights of the unconceived.” Curiously enough, when the story first appeared, most critics and readers took it as largely an attack on the theocratic mentality. But I was in fact intending to cast the abortion debate in a new – albeit satiric – light.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Although chronically unhappy with my species’s religious impulses, I try to cultivate a certain generosity of spirit toward churchgoers and clerics, both in my fiction and in my life. That’s an important personal goal for me. It’s the reason Father Cornelius Dennis Monaghan is, at one level, a sympathetic character. Atheists and agnostics account for about two-thirds of the fan-messages I receive, but the rest come from believers, so I figure I must be doing something right.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Most of the technical material in “Auspicious Eggs” partakes of rubber science. One of these days I’ll get around to doing the research for this story.

What is the appeal of dystopian fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

When a dystopianist is on his or her game, the resulting fiction gives us a vocabulary with which to grab hold of an otherwise elusive problem – terms like “Kafkaesque,” “Doctor Moreau’s Island,” “Newspeak,” and “Catch-22.” Kafka, Wells, Orwell, and Heller hit upon new and vital ways to talk about ideological savagery and sacralized insanity.

What are some of your favorite examples of dystopian fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

As I write these words, BP and the ghost of Ronald Reagan are staring helplessly at the unimaginable quantities of oil hemorrhaging from the obscene Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico. In light of this monstrous catastrophe, the dystopian work that immediately springs to my mind is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells argues that mere morals cannot play God without simultaneously pleasing Lucifer. For several generations, anti-regulation zealots having been playing God with the ecological welfare of our planet, and now there is Hell to pay.

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