Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable

A sneak peek at Vector 292, the contemporary art issue. Juliana Huxtable’s groundbreaking postdisciplinary artistic practice encompasses cyberculture, portraiture, performance, poetry, transmedia storytelling, critical making, fashion, happenings, and myriad other modes and magics. In September 2020 Vector took the opportunity to chat with Juliana about her work, especially the role played by science fiction

What were your early encounters with science fiction like?

My father, in particular, was obsessed with science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction lying around the house, games, films, magazines. He was really into Heavy Metal magazine, which featured this sci-fi soft-core pornography. For my dad, who was not a religious person, it was as close to a religious practice as we came.

My mom on the other hand was highly religious. But both of my parents really saw technology almost as this necessary gateway to liberation, to cultural and social advancement. There was a strong racial aspect to that. So that was the context in which I grew up, and what’s funny is that when I went to university, I almost had this kind of adolescent “I need to define myself!” moment. I pulled away from science fiction, and would feign disinterest.

How long did that last, that feigned disinterest?

It really was when I moved to New York that I started to develop my own interest in science fiction. Possibilities related especially to gender are so interesting to me. So I found myself naturally drawn to subjects that heavily relied on science fiction, or that were actually a form of science fiction … even if they might not be formally classified as part of that cultural sphere.

For instance, there was my interest in the Nuwaubian Nation. The merger of Ufology and Egyptology, and the literature and contemporary almost pseudo-science which that produces, is essentially a form of science fiction. That reanimated my interest in science fiction more generally. I started engaging with it again almost as a form of art research.

“Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering …”

This morning I saw this tweet where somebody was like, “Describe your gender in five words or less or more, and you can’t use words like masc, fem, androgynous.” People were replying with song lyrics and so on. I guess my question is, Juliana, what is gender?

For me, the struggle for gender that I’m interested in, and the work for gender that I’m interested in, is about expanding beyond inherited gender structures. That means expanding the signifying space that floats right above the concrete materiality of sex. So if ‘sex’ is this literal form of inherited embodiment, whose essence supposedly can’t be modified, then ‘gender’ is the directly corresponding world of cultural, religious, linguistic, and social meanings. Meanings that are, it’s assumed, birthed from that materiality. 

The struggle for gender and the work for gender that I’m interested in is de-linking those two, and then expanding that field, ideally to a point where maybe it doesn’t have any meaning any more. Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering, both of the two parts of a binary to each other, and to the idea of gender as it’s tethered to sex.

And until gender does evaporate, it’s exciting what its transformation might concretely encompass next. At least, in queer studies, queer theory, and queer activism, and probably more broadly too, the questioning of norms around sexual desire can expand into the questioning of all norms. I could be wrong, but it feels a very distinct logic and temporality from, in particular, anti-racist theory and activism?

Gender operates on the fantasy of being more universal. People make these statements all the time: “Well, the original form of oppression was men against women, and the original act was the reproductive act.” So I think even if it’s not necessarily true, there is a pretty widespread belief in the transhistoricity of gender, as opposed to race. Even people who believe in race, and believe in cohesive races organised in a hierarchy, ultimately they still think that there was a point at which the races were separated. The claim is that contemporary racial conflicts are birthed from interacting with each other and throwing ourselves against each other for years. You know what I mean? 

Definitely! I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Even among the white supremacist separatists, there’s some understanding that it’s contextual. Race, and the problems of race, are understood as socially and culturally contingent. I think gender, for me, has been the most generative and the most interesting, because it doesn’t have that kind of widespread perception. It’s quite fun to play with, because it always does something. At least, this is why I’m interested in gender.

“She takes a lot of colloidal silver”

I wanted to ask you about the novel you’re working on. It’s pretty science-fictional, right? What’s the premise?

It’s not fully science fiction, but it contains a lot of elements of science fiction. I haven’t decided how far in the future it is. It’s not so far where it’s like technology is completely unrecognizable. I didn’t want to go too far that way, writing this first novel, because anything I do is going to have some elements of science fiction anyway. It’s about a character who is really, really obsessed with body modification. I was thinking of the archetype of the body-mod goth. She takes a lot of colloidal silver. She’s obsessed with consuming colloidal silver, because it turns your skin blue if you consume too much of it.

She’s also always been obsessed with bats. Also they’ve now developed this surgery where they can essentially use your own cells, and then merge them with an animal’s, so you can develop body parts, essentially, that can be then attached to your own. We’re still at the point where these surgeries are presumably cosmetic. It’s not like they’ve merged human beings and other animals, they’ve just been able to affect the way that bones and skin can grow. So they can develop wings and attach them to you, but those wings aren’t fully functional.

I’ve also been really fascinated by genetic engineering, epigenetics, and food modification. The way a corporation like Monsanto might think about genetics, if a roach has a capability to fight off a certain type of pest that’s attacking their fruit crops, they will essentially extract whatever gene is responsible for that, and insert that into the fruit, so that the fruit then has this naturally occurring pesticide that repels this type of predatory insect.

Essentially the starting point is that she comes from a family of orange farmers. I also got really fascinated with orange juice! Brazil and the United States produce the most orange juice globally, and Brazil basically outpaced the United States at some point in the mid-2000s. The Brazilian crop is now the global standard, partly because it grows the fastest and it’s the most pest-resistant. The theory that the novel proposes is that these orange trees have been engineered using genetic material from this insect that fruit bats consume, and my character’s family has been consuming this for at least twenty years. So there’s a tentative relationship between essentially these bat genes that she’s been consuming and the large amounts of micro-RNA slowly altering her genes and slowly influencing the way that her body is producing itself. 

That sounds amazing.

So it’s about orange juice, and bats, and genes, and also dreams, because it also starts to influence her dreams. She has these terrifying dreams, that essentially take her to Brazil, and take her through space and through time. She has these dreams where she’ll be on an orange plantation where they’re effectively using bonded labor. She doesn’t recognize it as Brazil, because she’s not aware of this connection. She’s trying to understand what the relationship between all of this is, because she’s also obsessed with bats, and has been identifying herself as kind of a midnight-blue bat-like person.

“So it’s about orange juice, and bats, and genes, and also dreams, because it also starts to influence her dreams. She has these terrifying dreams …”

It sounds like it might have evolved a bit out of your exhibition that was part of Transformer, the recent show at The Store X in London?

The show at 180 The Strand was just a stripped-back version of a part of my solo show, my second solo show at Reena. That’s where I first developed these characters. I think I’m interested in the human-animal encounter because, at least in this popular imagination, that’s the limit of so many forms of identity politics, especially as they relate to gender and sexuality. For example, the expansion of sexual rights, overturning sodomy laws, overturning persecution surrounding certain types of non-marital sex. The conservative argument is oftentimes, ‘Well, if we keep allowing and expanding the category of what a legitimate form of sexual interaction is, we’re going to end up fucking animals.’ 

Juliana Huxtable installation at Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder, 180 The Strand

Sure, and you can understand why you might want to reject that argument really forcefully. But at the same time, and this is a tricky point, when you do confront those reactionary politics, you run the risk of colluding with a whole set of oppressive and violent assumptions about the human, about the non-human, about gender, which deserve to be challenged. Can we unpick that a bit more?

For example, maybe the argument goes, for example, ‘Well, if we let human identity expand, and start including all these things as legitimately human, well then, I might as well just end up as a fish!’ So it’s the kind of … either the nonsensical point, where it’s just the horizon of meaning, or it’s the absolute taboo. And that’s what interested me first. ‘Okay, well, why don’t we take that and run with it, instead of trying to find ways of separating ourselves from animality?’ 

It really opened up quite an interesting new direction for my work. I love Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance. The way Sheldrake imagines natural forms and systems as inherited memory and repeating themselves through morphogenetic fields just became a really fruitful way of reading genetic science, medical science, reproductive science. I almost see morphic resonance as somewhat akin to epigenetics. 

Definitely! I’m fascinated by thinking around extended or distributed phenotypes, and the way genes never just express themselves in a void, but always in a context that is itself characterised by all these complex patterns, and path-dependencies, and inheritances. Epigenetics, for any readers who aren’t familiar, is all about heritable traits involving how a gene is expressed, rather than differences in actual DNA sequences

Or at least, epigenetics would be compatible with that way of thinking about systems, and information, and genetic inheritance, and species or whatever? But I think that the Sheldrake was much more science fiction-adjacent to me. It’s been so fascinating to me, to think about forms resonating through time in conjunction with technologies literally implicated in the production and reproduction of forms, especially biotechnologies and the reproductive technologies surrounding industrial farming. So, I developed these characters. One is this cow, this bovine persona or avatar. And then there was the bat. And then I did a reptile character. And then a pig. That’s all of them.

I feel like they should all get a whole cinematic universe. 

The bat is getting a novel. I don’t know if all of them will, but the bat character is at least getting one.

“It’s been so fascinating to me, to think about forms resonating through time in conjunction with technologies literally implicated in the production and reproduction of form …”

I want to ask more about pseudo-science. It has such an interesting relationship with science fiction. You’ve got the kind of Star Trek style technobabble, where the deus ex machina is a type Q phase discriminating amplifier or whatever, where we’re not really supposed to take it seriously. And then you’ve got hard science fiction that aims for credibility, but is always necessarily somewhat pseudo-scientific insofar as it pushes toward speculative implementations, even if it does its best to maintain a credible technoscientific idiom. And then there’s all that pseudo-science whose status is contested, and often politically fraught. I’m interested in how pseudo-science relates to conspiracy theory, which is another big theme of some of your work. I don’t know, would you describe conspiracy theory as a kind of science fiction?

My instinct is to say that not all conspiracy theory is necessarily a form of science fiction, or even adjacent to science fiction. But I do think that most science fiction is conspiratorial in some sense. So yes, oftentimes there’s overlap between the two. Something like the Five-Percenter Movement can be seen as an almost science fictional response to the pseudoscience of scientific racism, for instance. 

“We’re in an era when many new forms of political and economic exploitation are paranoia-inducing because they’re so difficult to quantify.”

How does that play out in your work? For instance, can you talk about A Split During Laughter at the Rally?

That was my first solo show. Actually, that’s an example of where not all conspiracy — or at least what I was engaging with as conspiracy — necessarily is science fiction. But also, I was really interested in new forms of paranoia, and new speculative imaginations that arise in response to technological transformation. We’re in an era when many new forms of political and economic exploitation are paranoia-inducing because they’re so difficult to quantify. 

Absolutely. Sometimes the best you can do, epistemologically speaking, is to be paranoid, or to be speculative.

Data systems, hormonal systems, financial systems. These are all forms of capital, units of political control. Information and power is being distributed worldwide, but often in ways that are imperceptible to us. Or at least they’re not so tactile. So there’s this wave both of base cultural paranoia, but also I think of speculative writing and thinking, that comes from that place. It’s interesting to me to think about how emerging technology has that direct influence on how we deal with our ideas of the future. 

That’s so interesting. It’s tempting to think of new technology solely as a potential harbinger of the future that features that technology more widely. Which it can be. But technological transformation is also constantly re-calibrating culture in other ways as well, surfacing certain things and endowing them with certain saliences, while making other things more invisible, more silent.

And that idea was very central to that show: the imperceptible. Things moving into the imperceptible, the untouchable. You can’t feel it. At most, it’s a vibration, and a sort of paranoia emerges from that vibration.

The logic of paranoia might obfuscate the world, but it’s also sometimes what we need to know the world around us. That logic might even be reparative, sometimes. Because what is important to know is so often imperceptible. So deep in the vibration. 

Right. One book that’s not all science fiction, but has influenced the way that I read science fiction and other things, is Testo Junkie by Paul Preciado. It lays out these theories relating networking systems to endocrinology to developments in wireless technology. It’s really been illuminating to read the world through that new perspective.

“… the distinction between how you navigate the world as a rights-bearing citizen, and how you navigate the world as a consumer, is increasingly collapsing …”

OK, I think I’ve come across that. I need to check it out properly. When you think ‘What is capital?’ you might think about finance and land and machinery and so on … but you might not necessarily think of the biochemistry in our bloodstreams, because it’s harder to clearly point to who owns and controls that. Or when you think ‘What is technology?’ you might think about AI and automation and so on … but you might not necessarily think of pornography as a kind of technology that shapes desire and identity. A gender technology, maybe.

This has affected a lot of my thinking on conspiracy too. We’re at a point at which the distinction between how you navigate the world as a rights-bearing citizen, and how you navigate the world as a consumer, is increasingly collapsing. If something is now a source of capital, it is also, in a certain way, a space in which new rights and affordances can be granted or negotiated. 

Hormones are not only a source of capital, but also have literally expanded the possibilities for ways of embodiment. So what’s been happening is that new potential has opened up for somatic modification, while that potential itself is also opening to new forms of transaction, of enclosure, of contestation. It’s radically changing what embodiment means, and how much sway and influence one can have over that. Imagining where that could go is really interesting to me. That’s partly what the novel is, thinking through embodiment from those inter-species, trans-species angles.

Can we talk a bit about humour? That show at The Store X was really unsettling. You see the images, and they’re tragic, they’re angering, they’re funny, they’re beautiful, they’re horny. They’re kind of cartoonish and they’re also kind of visceral. Art gets described as ‘provocative’ way too often — but I felt like it was provocative in the sense that it offers me these responses, and which response I go for is going to say something about me? I feel like when people talk about your work — from what I’ve seen so far — they don’t talk about the humour enough?

If I have a gripe with the kind of art-critical-industrial complex, it’s that. I think that writing about cultural production, especially cultural production that doesn’t present itself as immediately trying to be super-wide-appeal, often really doesn’t know how to process humor. Humor is so important for me, just in my life generally, and it animates my work. I’m always like, ‘I hope it’s coming across. Are people just taking this all seriously?’ 

It’s getting better and better gradually. I think sometimes you just have to establish enough work for people to see it in conversation not just with itself. Especially when you are offered the very easy and seductive lens of identity, I think that people generally want to jump to a kind of literal interpretation, because the literal animates whatever kind of ethical posturing that comes along with that. 

I saw you talking somewhere about how sometimes the attribution of the theme of identity can actually be a way of limiting what the art is doing. Not that it’s necessarily not about identity. But to the extent that it is, that doesn’t mean it’s inviting me to sort of ritually recapitulate ideas I’m already familiar with.

There was one write-up that basically suggested the whole show was just about my tragic life as a trans woman, and I’m like, ‘What? There’s a cow being forcefully milked, with Playboy aesthetics. What is going on?’

Clearly this is straight-up sincere, confessional life writing.

It surprises me, but I think it’s like what you were saying. That says more about other people than it does about than what I’m putting into the work. This is one reason why also I really love being able to have a show up where I can be there. Because when people are in the show, there’s a lot of humor. I remember A Split During Laughter at the Rally, people were just … I loved hearing laughter, or seeing people laugh, or even seeing smiles on people’s faces. It’s almost a more vulnerable way of engaging what I’m doing, I think.

Just to finish, can we talk a little bit about parties? I guess it’s a similar question to the earlier one about gender. What is a party? I feel I have been where there’s people, there’s music, and there’s drinks, there’s fun, and no shade but it’s not a party. It’s ontologically a different thing.

I love to go to parties, I love to throw parties of all varieties. For me, the difference between a party and a gathering is that there’s almost a vibrational threshold that the collective energy has to surpass. And whether that threshold is passed by virtue of the number of people there, or that the threshold is passed by virtue of the music escalating a certain energy, or by some other dynamic, I do feel like a party has a sense of heightened energy that engenders a different way of being social, and a different way of engaging with people, and a different sense of possibility.

One of the first nights that pubs were opened up here, I did a little drive around, partly because I was just curious what the atmosphere would be like. It was small groups only, so mostly people who were out that night weren’t supposed to meet anyone new.

I don’t think you necessarily have to have new people, for me. I think most of my friends, one of the things I like about them is that there could be a party even with just five of us. It could fully be there.

“It’s an opportunity to be a contextually specific entity …” 

I was just like, okay, is there going to be that sense of danger that creates a really unhinged, voluptuous atmosphere? Or is the risk in this case actually an uncomfortable subtext, that renders everything flat and try-hard? I suppose I’m interested in the role of risk.

So I don’t know if it has to be risk. A sense of risk is part of the appeal of a certain type of nightlife. I think of the Berghain: that’s an almost, at this point, globally-recognizable branded clubbing experience. Berghain I do think is about performing risk, or giving the markers or ornaments of a kind of risk. But I also love a forest rave! I love to just be in the middle of the woods, or in the mountains, dancing, and I don’t feel risk associated with that, just a really dynamic sense of possibility.

I guess I should say for any readers who are new to your work, I’m not just asking randomly about parties! Your artistic practice has encompassed nightlife in various ways, in connection with music, fashion, and performance. And as I understand it there was an important phase in your career, in coming to understand and present yourself as an artist, that was about going out?

Yeah. It’s an opportunity to be a contextually specific entity. I at the time felt really disconnected from art-making. I had a very normal day job, working with lawyers, so it was just like … in terms of an artistic sensibility, something completely unrelated. I really felt that nightlife offered the possibility for me to be something that only existed in that moment. I wasn’t the person tethered to my job. I wasn’t the person that was walking down the street. I wasn’t the person that was in the cab on the way to the party.

When I entered that space, something about that radical shift in energy and the sense of possibility that comes with being essentially untethered from so many aspects of my life really became a space to think through concepts, and to deploy those concepts in all the different forms of enacting sociality, so dancing, talking, playing music. Even just my relationship with the lights, or something like that. In that environment, everything can become a sort of art form. There’s an art about the way that you carry yourself in a party. There’s an art about the way that you establish conversation, how you move through ideas, how you navigate what type of things to address with what type of person, and what type of atmosphere you engender through the music that you’re playing. It enabled and lubricated my imagination, in ways that would also then come out as writing, or videos, or other things. But the genesis of them, or at least the setting free of them, happened in the context of parties.

Part of the artistry of parties and nightlife is to do with agency. You talked about becoming perhaps a version of yourself that is untethered from the kinds of systems that you have to participate in on an everyday basis. I’m wondering if that’s also something that, in a little way, comes out in performance generally?

Well, I’ve always been a performer. As someone that has generally felt slighted or shortchanged by the behavioral expectations that I grew up in, I think I naturally was attracted to performance. I was attracted to it less as something that I understood as such or by name, than as a space to create a degree of intentionality, to distinguish myself from normal behavioral modes, and to enter this space where I could then play. I was a policy debater in high school, which was probably my first encounter with that space. But then it was at the encouragement of my friend Patty in New York, who had seen me doing poetry readings. She’s a curator, and she organized a performance showcase and asked me to be a part of that. It just kind of just grew from there. It’s funny. Even though I am a performance artist in practice, I’ve never sought that out. It’s because there is some sense of necessity.

Juliana it has been such an honour and a delight. And I can’t wait for the novel.

Freeing art from the human artist: Hod Lipson speaks to Fiona Moore about AI and creativity

Interview with Hod Lipson

By Fiona Moore

Artist: Pix18, a robot ‘that conceives and creates art on its very own.’ Oil on Canvas. (Image source: http://www.pix18.com)

Hod Lipson is a professor of Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University in New York. With Melba Kurman he is co-author the award-winning Fabricated: The New World of 3D printing and Driverless: Intelligent cars and the road ahead. His often provocative work on self-aware and self-replicating robots has been influential across academia, industry, policy, and public discourse more generally (including this very popular TED talk), and his interests also encompass pioneering in the fields of open-source 3D printing, electronics 3D printing, bio-printing and food printing. Hod directs the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia, where they “build robots that do what you’d least expect robots to do.”

Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose work, mostly involving self-driving cars and intelligent technology, has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Interzone and many other publications, with reprints in Forever Magazine and two consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her story “Jolene” was shortlisted for the 2019 BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction. Her publications include one novel, Driving Ambition, numerous articles and guidebooks on cult television, guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, three stage plays and four audio plays. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

You are a celebrated figure in the world of artificial intelligence research. Can you tell me how you came to be interested in, and working in, this area?

Thanks. To me, issues like self-awareness, creativity, and sentience are the essence of being human, and understanding them is one of life’s big mysteries – on par with questions like the origin of life and of the universe. There are also many practical reasons to understand and replicate such abilities (like making autonomous machines more resilient to failure). I think that we roboticists are perhaps not unlike ancient alchemists, trying to breathe life into matter. That’s what brings me to this challenge.

My own interest in AI is, in part, as an anthropologist, looking at culture. To what extent will AI “learn” culture, at least initially, from humans, and to what extent do you see them as capable of developing culture on their own?

Yes, AIs learn culture (for better and worse) from humans and from a human-controlled world; but as AIs become more autonomous, they will gather their own data, and develop their own norms, perspectives, and biases.

Do you see this already happening? If so, what do AI cultures look like at present?

AIs today are still like children, and their cultures are heavily controlled by us humans– their “parents.” For example, AIs that generate music are influenced by existing human music genres; AI’s that generate human portraits are influenced by images of humans they find on the web – disproportionately favouring certain aesthetics, genders, and ethnicities, etc. AIs that generate text are influenced by prose that they are trained on, and so forth.

I have not seen AIs that have full autonomy on the data they consume, but this will eventually happen as artificial intelligence becomes more physically autonomous and can collect its own data. But again, we humans are also increasingly subjected to an information diet that is prescribed by the culture we live in, and we have to make a conscious effort to rise above our culture or go against it. 

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“The big idea”: An interview with Wole Talabi

Back in August, Louisa Egbunike caught up with award-winning SFF author Wole Talabi to chat about his work. This interview was first published in Vector 289.

Earlier you mentioned feeling like you were outside of literary circles, and being dragged in. By who? Who’s dragging you?

I don’t know. For a long time, my writing was just about blogging, writing stories from random ideas, and selling to these obscure science fiction magazines. Well, not obscure … but still, I never had any sense of belonging to a generation of writers, you know? The “it” people, or should I say “lit” people right now, are all people I hadn’t met before, hadn’t heard of, and probably hadn’t read much of. Until maybe last year, when I started meeting them after the whole Caine Prize nomination.

So I guess maybe the Caine Prize dragged me into the whole literary circle thing. Before that, I was just like, “I have an interesting idea, there’s some cool robots, and what if the world was like this? Okay, that’s it.” Now, it’s like I have actual fans, and other writers are saying, “There’s all these layers, meanings, and themes in your work.” I was like, “Okay, cool. I mostly thought the robot was cool, but that’s it.”

They see things in your work you didn’t see yourself?

It’s not like I ignore themes or whatever. It’s just, for me, they’re kind of secondary – which is almost the opposite of most writers I know. Most writers I know focus on character and theme. But for me, the idea comes first, and everything else is secondary. A lot of my stories come from just studying things. I see some interesting science thing, and I’m like, “Oh, OK. How would that really work?”

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This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 2: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

PART 2: ‘Odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections’

This is Part 2 of Powder Scofield’s interview with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, authors of This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019). Part 1 can be read here. Special thanks to Robert Berg for his help with the interview.

Powder: We’ve been talking about your novella This Is How You Lose The Time War, which is an epistolary exploration of time and causality and privacy and intimacy and emotion and all of these things. And we’ve been talking a bit about the internet, and how the changing structures of the internet have maybe revealed different possibilities for solitude and togetherness.

For me, reading Time War also had this extra dimension of excitement because I was like, ‘Amal wrote that! Max wrote that!’ The three of us have odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections. Max, I met you at university, we’ve known each other for — God! — over eighteen years now. And Amal, I met you online the first time I was living in the UK …

Amal: That was around 2007, through a game of Changeling: The Dreaming.

Powder: But when did you two first meet?

Amal: ReaderCon in 2014. I was vaguely aware of Max, because I had an ARC of Two Serpents Rise, but I hadn’t read it yet. I was on the programming committee, so I was responsible for taking ideas that people sent in and making panel items out of them. One panel was about magic and technology, and I was curious how that would go. So I went to the panel and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy whose book I have on my shelf.’ I sat down and I lasted about ten minutes of taking notes before I actually started vibrating with frustration that I wasn’t just having this conversation with him away from the rest of the panel. He was saying every single thing that I wanted someone to say about the stuff on this panel that I had put together, and it was irritating that I wasn’t on the panel too. So I actually at some point just got up and left! That’s how I actually met Steph first, because I think I ran into her in the hallway as I was leaving, and I was like, ‘Yeah, your husband’s really smart.’

Max: How did you know that she was my wife? Had you seen us together?

Amal: No, someone introduced us. Actually, I think she might have even said, ‘Hi, I’m Max Gladstone’s wife,’ and I was like, ‘WHAT…’

Max: Excellent!

Amal: So later that night we’re both at a party. I was reviewing books for NPR at the time, and there are rules at NPR about reviewing books by friends. My NPR editor was literally in the room. So I walked up to Max, and I think what I said was, ‘Hello! I think if the two of us sat down together for a while we could maybe solve the world’s problems, but I can’t be friends with you because I want to review your books so … yeah.’

Max: Which, as an initial approach line, leaves you without a lot of obvious responses, I will say.

Powder: Do you remember your response? 

Continue reading “This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 2: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

“More politics, more magic, and more queer”: An interview with Juliet Kemp

book cover of Shadow and Storm

Juliet Kemp’s second novel Shadow and Storm is hot off the presses. Rivers Solomon calls it “the literary equivalent of sinking into the embrace of a dear friend.” Ali Baker caught up with them to chat all things writing and reading …

Let’s start with your new book! How would you describe it?

Shadow and Storm takes place a couple of months after the events of The Deep and Shining Dark. My protagonist Marcia is dealing with the aftermath of the first book, and the other political problems that inevitably appear. Then a sorcerer on the run from Teren arrives in Marek hoping they’ll be safe there, which might have worked, until a demon comes looking for them. And the demon may be more involved with the politics than everyone would prefer. So there’s more politics, more magic, and more queer, basically.

That sounds amazing! 

I like writing politics — I have a background in it — but it’s hard to make it convincing. On the other hand, recent real-world events have demonstrated that sometimes people really do make very short-sighted political decisions for reasons that might not be the smartest, so …

Some might say that epic fantasy has very problematic roots, politically. Is that ever something you find yourself encountering when you write –that the material you’re working with tries to tug you in directions you don’t want to go?

That’s a really interesting question, and the answer is yes, definitely. I am consciously trying, in the Marek series, to write characters from multiple backgrounds, but there’s definitely a tendency in epic fantasy to focus on the people at the top of the pile, and one of my main characters is in that position. I also find that I’m drawn towards various forms of violence both as problem and as solution, simply I think because that’s one of the approaches I’m used to reading. The stories we tell shape how we think about both stories and the world in general. So I do try to push back against that — I want people to solve problems in other ways — but I have noticed the pressure in what
I expect a story to look like and have to consciously stop and rethink. With greater or lesser success…

Can you talk a bit more about queer representation in both books? Continue reading ““More politics, more magic, and more queer”: An interview with Juliet Kemp”

This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 1: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019) has been gathering a glowing reception. It’s an intense, lyrical, tragicomic novella about two elite warriors, Red and Blue, who strike up a correspondence across the millenia and across enemy lines. Adam Roberts, in his pick of SFF of the year, calls it ‘one of a kind.’ The novella has also made the shortlist for the 2019 BSFA Award. Late in 2019, Powder Scofield joined Amal and Max to shoot the breeze. This interview is a two-parter, with Part 2 dropping next week. Special thanks to Robert Berg for all his help with the interview.

PART I: ‘So we were in this gazebo …’

Powder: You’ve said one of the foundational premises of your friendship was writing physical letters to one another, and obviously that shows up in This Is How You Lose The Time War. Are there other bits of real life embedded in Time War? When you’re working on a project, how much are you intentionally processing past experience? 

Max: Some of it’s intentional, but in my experience, intention is like a raft that’s on an ocean that’s in the middle of a storm. You’re aware of what you can see, but you’re not in control of it as much as you think you are. There’s a little rudder, and you can maybe try to paddle. But if a wave is driving you east, you’re going east. So I think when we sat down to write, we both knew that we were drawing on our experience of writing letters to each other, and of correspondence more generally, and the particular strange kind of time travel that you do when you’re writing a letter, especially a physical letter. But at the same time, there’s the raft, there’s the ocean, and there’s the storm.

Powder: There’s a line in the book, like, “There’s a kind of time travel in letters.” I can see that. The time it takes to write a letter, the time it takes to get there. The way letters can sometimes cross each other in transit.

Max: Exactly. You’re imagining who the other person is that will be receiving this, you’re imagining where you’ll be when they’re receiving the letter in a week or two. You’re wondering sometimes about the many forces that could stand between you dropping the small and very fragile piece of paper into a confusing and vast and twisty basically state system with the hope and trust that the $1.35 stamp will see it across the international border to someone else’s actual house just because you happen to put some words on it. So all of these steps create many different versions of yourself and of the recipient and of your respective spaces. I think that was the intent with Time War. But there are other things that I think were beneath and driving that intent. 

Amal: And to answer really literally, when we were writing the book, we were also in a gazebo with no internet. So we were sitting across from each other and we only had recourse to our own bodies of knowledge. The book is built primarily out of no research, but instead what we both brought to the literal table between us in a literal gazebo as we wrote things! There’s so much in there built out of, for one thing, the surroundings. It was a gorgeous late June, early July in the Midwest. There were trees and birds and plants and things that were finding their ways into the things we were writing, for sure …

Max: Except that I don’t know plants and animals as well as you do. For me: it was green … green was nice … Continue reading “This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 1: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

“Actions and reactions and ripple effects”: an interview with Valerie Valdes

Chilling Effect cover

Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes’s resplendent debut novel, was published last month in the UK by Orbit. It’s an action-packed space opera bursting with wit and wacky hijinks. Liz Lutgendorff caught up with Valerie Valdes to spill the space tea …

Right from the start, Chilling Effect throws you into the deep end. Was that a deliberate choice?

I do usually prefer novels that approach their stories through immersion rather than exposition. I like to create context while something is happening, rather than trying to explain everything up front. That’s how I tend to build my worlds as well: by having things be introduced as the character thinks about them or interacts with them, a very tight POV that can mean some things aren’t immediately clear and some readers will be frustrated by the lack of explicit description. 

It can be a difficult approach to manage because you want the reader to be engaged, and sometimes starting on action or dialogue means the whole thing is occurring in a void and they have no reason to care about what’s happening yet. But also the first chapter, “Save the Cats”, is an allusion to the technique where you get the audience to empathize with your main character by having them do something noble like … save a cat! So I was not only beginning with as much immersion as I could manage, but also joking about the method usually used to get the buy-in from audiences.

That makes sense. Chilling Effect is filled with great worldbuilding, and a lot of action and intrigue, but it’s also very funny and silly! Did you worry about how silly you could be? Or did you leave that your editor if you went too far?

At the point where I started writing this book, I’d spent years trying to write “serious” sci-fi and fantasy and horror stories, because that seemed like the most important thing I could do with my time and energy. The world is a mess, and we need thoughtful fiction to help us find a way to deal with our problems meaningfully, both externally and internally. But as important as catharsis is, as important as it is to engage with contemporary issues, I think it’s also important to imagine a future where humanity has more or less transcended some of those problems. 

Which can be risky too, right? Continue reading ““Actions and reactions and ripple effects”: an interview with Valerie Valdes”

Living Among Leviathans: An Interview with Stewart Hotston

A science fiction and fantasy author with a background in physics and finance, Stew Hotston is something of a Renaissance man (right down to the sword-wielding bit). Vector sent Robert S. Malan for a friendly duel of words …

Tell us a little about your work to date – are there distinct strands linking the stories you tell?

Yes, for sure. Despite moving around across SF, fantasy, horror and the just plain weird, there are a couple of themes which recur. One theme is family. Not always blood, but always who we choose to be vulnerable with, who we choose to have by our side when we’re facing challenging times. I think asking who those people are and what we’d do for them are interesting questions, no matter the setting. 

The other recurring theme for me is worlds on the edge of collapse. I like returning to the idea of how times and places, which at first appear idyllic, have nearly always required bad decisions to get there, and these will lie in wait, festering until their time comes again. It’s a little of dealing with the past, but also about asking what price we are willing to pay in order to get what we want. 

Finally, you’ll see a lot of dreams in my books. Not in an ‘it was all a dream’ kind of way! But as ways of characters processing what’s going on, as ways of communication and, even in the hardest SF, to remind us there’s more out there than we’ve dreamed of (literally).

What motivates you when it comes to storytelling, which can be a hard and lonely craft at times?

Continue reading “Living Among Leviathans: An Interview with Stewart Hotston”

An interview with Dilman Dila

Dilman Dila

This interview first appeared in Vector 289.

When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?

I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.

I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.

Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.

I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.

Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?

There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.

But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.

You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?

I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.

From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.

I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.

Can you tell us more about your film Her Broken Shadow — what themes or messages were you most keen to convey? Continue reading “An interview with Dilman Dila”

“Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed

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Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star (2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …

In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it. 

Gareth: Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book. 

Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving. 

Lads, why so bleak?

Continue reading ““Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed”