Saturday 27 August 2016

Interview with James Bennett

We’re delighted to welcome TFF author James Bennett, who is about to release his first fantasy novel with Orbit Books, a thrilling epic in which myth and urban modernity clash (preorder link), and that we’re really looking forward to read. James was kind enough to come and answer a few questions about his work.

James Bennett is a British writer born in Loughborough and raised in Sussex, South Africa and Cornwall. His travels have furnished him with an abiding love of different cultures, history and mythology. He's had several short stories published internationally and Chasing Embers is his debut fantasy novel. James is currently adrift around London before embarking on his next adventure and his next book…

The Future Fire: You had two stories published in TFF in 2005/6, ‘Lost Chapters: A fairytale’ and ‘Half Light House’ (which was also reprinted in the 2015 anthology, TFF-X). Which of these stories stands the test of time better, for you? What did it mean to you at the time you wrote it?

James Bennett: I did! Interestingly, I think ‘Lost Chapters’, a story about fairy tale characters trapped in an old book, holds a seed of the series I’m writing now, this idea of a supressed magical world just out of sight. Of course, that idea filters down from Narnia and no end of Fantasy novels that I read throughout childhood, but I like the idea of a known fantasy world, one that most of us aren’t privy to – a conspiracy between humans and the fabulous, if you will. But I think ‘Half Light House’ has aged better. You’re always learning and ‘Half Light House’, while an experiment at the time, was probably the first hint of me finding my voice. When I wrote it, I remember thinking, ‘God, you might actually be able to do this!’ And that’s a feeling I now encourage in all newbie writers. You know, push yourself.

TFF: You have a written many stories involving monsters (dragons, the African/European Monsters anthologies)—do monsters have a special fascination for you? Do they allow you to write themes or stories that purely human protagonists would not fit into so well?

JB: Weird as it sounds, I identify with monsters far more than I do with human characters. This kind of started happening as I was growing up and eventually matured into the Ben Garston novels. Monsters are underdogs. They live on the fringes. They deal with a lot of fear and the threat of violence. And some monsters, I reckon, don’t really deserve that reputation. Some are just trying to survive, pushed to the brink of extinction by a wantonly advancing civilisation. That’s what I wanted to speak to in these stories, to get under the skin of monsters and try to see things through their eyes. A human element creeps in, regardless. Maybe the whole thing is a metaphor. Sometimes humans are the most monstrous of all…

TFF: There is a lot of talk about inclusivity and diversity in speculative fiction at the moment, especially with the excellent Hugo results this week; how do you approach diversity in your work, perhaps especially in Chasing Embers?

JB: I’m really pleased about the Hugos results, particularly after all the attempts to derail the awards by others. I think Jemisin and Okorafor et al have displayed incredible fortitude and grace in the face of a lot of hateful crap flung at them. It’s truly admirable and when you read the work, you just know these writers have worked twice as hard as anybody else to get where they are, so it’s very well deserved. For me, I think things in fiction are slowly shifting and some of us writing now are coming from an entirely different place, a place where perhaps there isn’t as much privilege and inclusion, where there are different cultures around and experiences outside the ‘socially enforced norm’. I didn’t want to write an all-white, all straight, male-focused book set in jolly old England. I never will. It’s why I’m such an advocate of diverse artists speaking up for themselves and rising to share an equal platform in the mainstream genre, as in all walks of life. Ultimately, we’ll get more out of it. It’s a tremendously exciting time to be involved in SF.

TFF: What was the process of working with Orbit on your book like?

JB: Exciting! I’m lucky enough to be working with some of the best editors in the known world. Anna Jackson, Lindsey Hall and James Long have all been a fantastic resource of guidance and advice during the shaping of these books. Everything is a conversation and we all want the books to be the best they can be. On a personal note, it did take a little adjustment. You write for years by yourself with no deadline, without knowing if you’ll even be published or if anyone will read your stuff. Then that gets flipped on its head, so it’s a totally different game. You’re discussing your characters with people in London and New York, not to mention a handful of early readers. But it’s all good. It’s obviously preferable, for a writer.

TFF: How is the promotion for Chasing Embers going?

JB: So far, the response has been great. It’s such a simple idea, really, but it seems to catch on. We’ve had some successful Goodreads giveaways, I ran a Twitter competition that went down well and there’s going to be a nationwide competition from Orbit where readers can win a stack of cash, so that’s fun too. People have been incredibly supportive and that’s very humbling. You want to do your best. It’s heartening to see that we’re not bored of fairy tales yet, though like the genre itself, we’re going through a growing up phase, I think.

TFF: You’ve lived in a lot of places in your life, including recently stays in the wilds of Wales, urban London, and the fiery summer of Catalonia. Does this broad experience feed into your writing, do you think?

JB: Absolutely. But change is my constant, going back to my earliest memories. I was raised all over England and then when I was 11, we emigrated to South Africa. I’ve lived in Cornwall, Scotland and Holland. In the past year I’ve been across Russia, China and visited Istanbul. But it isn’t new for me. Growing up, I went to 23 or so different schools (I lost count) and I haven’t stayed in one house longer than 3 years in my whole life. At this point, when I’m not travelling or planning to travel, things don’t feel right. So yes, it all feeds into my writing. It’s the only life I’ve known.

TFF: In which city in the world are you most likely to meet a magical creature?

JB: Oh, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? Most of them are hiding in human skins. Dragons prefer London. Vampires tend to like Paris or Barcelona. Wizards love Berlin. Moscow has a fair share of goblins. China is full of ghosts. And Africa is where the gods sleep.

TFF: Where would you like to go back to, or what completely new place would you visit next?

JB: It’s rare for me to want to return anywhere. There is so much to see! London is kind of my hub, so I’m always swinging through there. I adore Paris and I could live in Barcelona quite happily for the rest of my days. But I’m going to check out the Americas next.

TFF: Chasing Embers is the first in a series: do you already know how the whole story will pan out? Do you plan first and then write, or write first and then mould? What non-spoilery hints can you share with us?

JB: You know, when I wrote Chasing Embers it started off a short story purely for fun. That somehow became a novel (yikes!), but hand on heart, when I got a book deal I panicked a little over Book 2. I’d only thought ahead in the vaguest sense and there is always the fear that you can’t top what you’ve already done. So my research increased and I put my heart and soul into the series as whole, thinking about where it could go, what journey lay ahead for Ben and the other Remnants, where it would all ultimately lead. So yes, I sketch out a railway, as such, but the train remains a colourful mess of ideas chugging along it. And I could even derail it at some point. Book 2 is a darker book, perhaps a more mature one, with higher stakes and graver consequences. Ben isn’t going to get away with anything. He broke the Lore. He’ll have to answer for that. Things are about to go up in flames.

TFF: Apart from the rest of this series, what are you working on next?

JB: I’m hoping to put together two collections of short stories for release late next year, tentatively titled Exploding Myths, which are spin offs from the Ben Garston world, and Other Stories, which will collect, well, my other stuff, mostly spooky with some noir and a dash of satire thrown in. This is only a loose idea at present, however. Apart from that, like most writers, I have more ideas than I probably have time. I’d like to write a historical fiction/horror novel that’s been bubbling away for a while now. Watch this space.

James Bennett will be signing books at the official launch of Chasing Embers at the Forbidden Planet Megastore on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on September 10th between 1–2pm. All welcome!

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Sofia Samatar GOH Speech for WisCon 40 (2016)

GOH Speech for WisCon 40 (2016)
Posted for Sofia Samatar

Today is James Tiptree, Jr.'s birthday, and to celebrate, the Guests of Honor from WisCon 40 are putting our speeches online. This is my speech, delivered at WisCon on May 29, 2016. You can also read speeches by Justine Larbalestier and Nalo Hopkinson. Many thanks to The Future Fire for giving my words a home!

In the next few minutes, friends and colleagues, I’d like to talk to you about flight.

The critic Alastair Fowler once said: “Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon.” I’ll say that again: Genre is not a pigeonhole, it’s a pigeon! I’ve always loved that image: genre taking flight. In reality, however, many of us who write some type of genre fiction often do find ourselves pigeonholed in unfortunate ways. We can find we’re expected to write to a template, to follow certain conventions or risk the rage of the comments section: “That’s not science fiction!” On the other hand, by non-genre readers, we’re often simply dismissed. A friend of my husband’s parents, on learning that I write fantasy, quite literally laughed in my face.

But for me, genre is a pigeon. It allows me to take flight. I wrote my first book in South Sudan, and my second in Egypt. I worked pretty much in isolation, showing my work to only one person—my husband Keith, fortunately an excellent reader. I’d never taken a writing workshop—just two college courses, one in fiction and one in poetry. I didn’t even know enough to follow writers on the internet—well, in South Sudan I didn’t have internet, but even in Egypt, where I did, I just didn’t know what you’re supposed to do. Only later did I learn what you probably know already—that there’s a thing called Clarion, that people often publish short stories before novels, so other people will have heard of them, and so on. I overwrote horribly and would spend years trimming to find the stories buried in my mess, but the point here is not that my writing process sucks, it’s that I loved it. I was flying.

I started the Olondria project in 1998. By 2004, I had very ugly drafts of two novels. I decided to start seeking a literary agent.

Dear Ms. Samatar: We read your material with great interest and enjoyed your vivid sensory details and clear writing style. However, I am sorry to say we must pass on representing this particular project. Your work seems to fall somewhere between fantasy and literary fiction, and we have trouble seeing how to market it in today’s competitive book publishing industry.

Dear Ms. Samatar: Thank you for the opportunity to read your manuscript. Unfortunately, I’m going to pass. I love your writing, but your work is not typical commercial fantasy, and while that makes it attractive in some ways, it also makes it a marketing challenge that my agency is not prepared to take on.

Dear Ms. Samatar: It is with an incredibly heavy heart that I am writing this. I adore A Stranger in Olondria. When I first started reading it I thought it could cross over into mainstream audiences. Your writing is beyond beautiful but at the end of the day the fantastical places just kept me from envisioning how to sell it. I wish you would just write some historical fiction! With your flare for incredible narrative language, it would be an instant bestseller.

I have a lot more letters like that but I won’t bore you. Let’s say goodbye to 2004. And 2005, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9 for good measure. Those were some depressing years. The good news is, I revised my work a lot—I had decided I would never send the same manuscript out twice, so after each rejection I’d read the entire book over again, trimming, tweaking, tightening, rewriting. And I wound up with a pretty good novel. I wish I could tell you that I eventually found the right agent for that novel, but I never did. What I did do was come here, walk up to the Small Beer table, buy some books—which is crucial, always buy a book!—and say, “So. I’ve written this novel…”

What does all this say about the potential for writers to really explore the possibilities of genre fiction, to push genre, to get it off the ground? Well, it suggests that the odds against succeeding with this kind of project are pretty high. So why do it then? Why not simply follow the rules, if, like most of us in this room, you’re lucky enough to know them? Well for me, the reasons for taking the risk are the same as the reasons for writing in the first place: truth and pleasure.

Yes, truth. Fantasy expresses truths that often can’t be told through realist narratives—truths of emotion and perception that fall outside the rational, truths at the level of dream. As artists we need to tell our stories truly in all their variety. When genre becomes rigid, we lose this possibility. It becomes impossible to find publishers for work that challenges genre boundaries, for work that looks in any way different, and that includes work with protagonists of color, queer protagonists, disabled protagonists. Now it may sound like I’m talking about two very different things right now, and in a sense I am—one is an issue of form, right, the need to be able to tell fantastical stories that don’t follow genre fiction’s rules, and the other is an issue of content, of what kind of characters are represented in the fiction, whose story is being told. But form and content are always related and so are these two issues. The formal issue, the problem of that genre rigidity that demands stories follow a certain form, is a diversity issue, it is a race issue, it is a feminist issue. Right, because although it’s great to see diverse characters on fantasy and science fiction book covers, and we need that, it’s not enough if the story inside the covers follows the same old pattern. And in fantasy, to speak of my own subgenre of epic fantasy, the pattern requires war, it requires conflict, it requires accepting that violence is the only way to solve that conflict, it requires a single hero who rises above his fellows, and I say his advisedly, to crush his enemies—hey, that’s not a story that works for some of us. Some of us are not interested in that story, and I put it to you that the reason we’re not interested is that that pattern grows out of and supports a system that is hostile to us.

It’s worth the risk, I think, of spending years trying to get published, the risk of being a “small author,” to tell your truth. It’s worth it to make genre stretch its wings. We need pigeons, not pigeonholes; we need forms that are flexible and malleable enough to express the truth of our differences. The great genre-busting writer Carole Maso asks, and this is a long quote but it’s deep, so stay with me: “If writing is language and language is desire and longing and suffering, and it is capable of great passion and also great nuances of passion—the passion of the mind, the passion of the body—and if syntax reflects states of desire, is hope, is love, is sadness, is fury, and if the motions of sentences and paragraphs and chapters are this as well, if the motion of line is about desire and longing and want; then why when we write, when we make shapes on paper, why then does it so often look like the traditional, straight models, why does our longing look for example like John Updike’s longing?”

In fantasy and science fiction we might ask—why does our longing so often look like Isaac Asimov’s longing? This is the genre of possibility! After all, many people are drawn to the worlds of fantasy and science fiction because they feel like outsiders, they feel like they don’t belong in this world. The tropes of fantasy and science fiction can be powerful vehicles for expressing the sense of dislocation experienced by those who are physically and psychologically on the outside. I myself am drawn to these genres partly due to the experience of growing up between cultures that everything around me insisted could not exist together: half of my family are Somali and Muslim and the other half are Swiss-German Mennonites from North Dakota. What does that make me? It might mean I’m from the future, it might mean I’m a citizen of an alternate universe, but either way it complicates my relationship to this world. It makes me long for ways of being I don’t see in the world around me, and that’s not John Updike’s longing, it’s not Isaac Asimov’s longing, it’s particular and I believe worthy of expression.

Longing brings me to desire, it brings me to pleasure. Pleasure, I said earlier, is, along with truth, the reason for taking the risks involved in making genre fly. I’m talking about writing. I’m talking about the free play of the imagination, about being in the zone. Writing is magic. Writing, I’ve always thought, is basically a more intense form of reading, which is to say, a slightly less intense form of flying. That experience is worth any risk. It’s worth confronting our fears of rejection, of being perceived as “too confusing” or “too literary” or “too feminist” or “too black.” It’s worth confronting our own socialization toward genre patterns of individual heroism and triumphalist violence that may not express our real longings. It’s worth trying to find out what those longings are, and that’s a risk too, it can be terrifying. “How can you hesitate?” demands the great writer Katherine Mansfield. “Risk! Risk anything!”

Thank you.

James Tiptree, Jr.

Friday 12 August 2016

Artist Feature: Christina Cartwright

TFF wouldn’t have been able to run for the last eleven years without the input of our heroic, generous and talented team of artists, who illustrate every story we publish with work that is every bit as creative and important as the stories and poems themselves. One of the artists who has worked with us for the longest is Christina Cartwright, book cover illustrator at Digitell Design, who first joined us in 2006 with an illustration for “Deadline,” and followed up with the Dali-esque surreal cover art for issue #11. If you’ve been following TFF for any length of time at all, you’ve certainly come across some of her detailed, dramatic, digital illustrations. We asked Christina to tell us a bit about her illustrating and artistic work elsewhere, and she has prepared the following showcase for us—if you like what you see, she can also be commissioned for custom cover design in many different styles, including children’s illustration. Over to you, Chris!

Christina Cartwright has a degree in visual communications and has been creating book covers, story illustrations and posters since 2003. She has also created images for games and various other projects. Chris lives in south west Indiana with her husband Tom and 3 cats Buffy, Piper and Gypsy.

Anyone who knows me knows I adore vampires. It is my favorite genre of the horror industry. And in the fantasy genre, dragons is my subject of choice. There was a time several years back, I dreamed of a story of a woman who was part vampire and part dragon. I started to write this story, but I am no writer. So, I looked up a fellow I created a few covers for and asked him if he would be interested in writing about my dragon/vampire lady and he agreed. I created the cover for it and it was titled Dragon Blood. (Zoom for larger image.)

As a small child, I can barely remember the imaginary friend I had. I guess a lot of kids have imaginary friends. I wish I could remember more about mine, but I do remember her name was Kathy. This story, The Adventures of Adam and the Incredibly Mysterious Zorkins, by Ronnie Glazer, is about a boy who discovers some very small beings who are not imaginary. It is a really cute story and I had a lot of fun illustrating it!

I created a series of three covers for a man and wife team of writers. J.K. Barber (Jay and Katie) is what they call themselves. I created their logo for them too. I worked directly with Katie. She was tough one to please, but we had a great time working together and she pushed me to do the best I could do. I learned a lot working for her! This is the cover for the second volume in their trilogy, Icebound.

I work on children’s books the most. I really enjoy the stories that people come up with, I have a lot of fun with them. With kid’s stories, anything goes! Sometimes work gets slow, so at one point I wanted to learn how to format the interior of a book. I decided to write a small children’s book and of course illustrate it too. As I said before, I am no writer, but I gave it my best shot. I wanted the experience. So I created Gina Gets Glasses. It didn’t turn out too bad and I may do another story about Gina.

Another genre I enjoy is Sci Fi. Another great way to let the imagination run wild! This cover below is for the story Libertas and Thunderbolt. It is a story about a male and female who are the creators of humans and the Earth. It is a really cool story!

And that leads us to The Future Fire. One of the very first magazines to be kind enough to allow me to illustrate some of their stories. And I even created a couple of covers for them! I will always be thankful to Djibril and his magazine crew! Here you can see one of the covers and illustrations I created for TFF, based on the story Soul Catcher by Christel Bodenbender.

For myself, I enjoy all types of stories and art, anywhere from horror to children’s books and inbetween. I create either cartoon-like or the realistic style images… anything you can dream up! If you are looking for a cover artist or a story illustrator or both, look me up!

You can find my website/portfolio at: and you can email me at:

Thank you for reading!

Friday 5 August 2016

Interview with Ada Palmer

Interview by Cait Coker.

Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Her first science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, was released in June, and describes the future of humanity in the Twenty-Fifth Century in terms that are as familiar and foreign as the period of the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment is to us.

Cait: I find it fascinating that you’re a historian by day and science-fiction author by night (and more day). You clearly drew upon a deep knowledge of the politics and philosophy of the Enlightenment in writing your book. Can you tell me what first made the connections between past and future for you in writing Too Like the Lightning?

Ada: If you think about it, there’s nothing more similar to the future than the past: both are long blocks of time during which human societies change and evolve, and are affected by crises and gradual transformations. I think being a historian is immensely useful for SF because it gives me a world of examples and test cases to compare to when I want to answer questions about things that might change a society, “What if the transportation system suddenly got faster?” (Look at the spread of railroads). “What if the dominantly-English origins of the internet mean that English comes to be a sort of universal second language?” (Look at Greek in the Roman Empire). “How will space colonies separate culturally from Earth?” (Figure out the travel time, then look at Earth’s many past diasporas and migrations.) In Too Like the Lightning I wanted to imagine Earth’s future in a few hundred years, and it seemed natural to answer my questions by looking at the past and using it for comparison.

I’m going to geek out for a minute: Your knowledge of the period really materializes itself in the book as object, and how it relies on typography and the use of graphs as part of the story. In SFF we talk a lot about how genre texts have influenced scientific and technological developments, but this was history influencing a genre text. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

I love the double-take people often do opening the cover, with its illustration of flying cars and its super-modernist sans serif font, to find that period title page with 18th century fonts, woodblock ornaments, and even 18th century censorship permissions on the front. When the book was in its last stages I sent an eleven page letter to the typography team talking about different eighteenth-century period book layout things I hoped they’d do, and special things I was doing with punctuation, and such. I was overjoyed when I saw how much they’d done with the final version, period-feeling fonts, the little wood block type ornaments on the title page and in the headers. I wanted those small touches because the book intentionally puts the reader in a strange position in terms of time. The narrator is writing a history of the 25th century, so the narrator expects a reader from his future, with sensibilities advanced beyond his own day, “enlightened” compared to the 25th century. But the real reader is from the 21st century, so when the narrator does things like explain how “he” and “she” work because the narrator expects they’ve dropped out of use like “thee” and “thou,” suddenly the real 21st century reader has to wrestle with three time periods at once, the 21st century, the 25th century, and the narrator’s imagined future past the 25th century. Except the narrator is also trying to write in an 18th century style (trying with middling success, as we try with middling success to act like Renaissance people at a Renn Fest), so a fourth moment in time is also involved. In effect, there is no point at time at which this book would be at home, it’s an object out of time, written in the future in the style of the past for an imagined farther future which may or may not ever come to be. People have found the layering of all those time periods delightfully mind-bending, and effective at raising questions about how the future will view the past. So by having period typography the book physically reminds you of its object-out-of-time-ness, making the reading experience more immersive, though the immersion isn’t in the world of 2454, it’s in the book object itself as an object self-consciously out of time. And 18th century fonts are really beautiful. Have you seen the capital Q in the page header of the chapter “The Interlude in Martin Guildbreaker Pursues the Question...”? Most beautiful Q in the world!

What attracted you to speculative fiction in the first place?

I’ve loved F&SF since I was tiny. I remember when it started: one of my oldest memories was going to the public library, and going to the kids’ section as usual to look for a new Doctor Seuss book, and someone had misshelved a big hardcover copy of The Hobbit there, with a *huge* red dragon on the cover. It was one of the heaviest things I’d ever lifted, but I asked Dad if he would read it to me, and we checked it out (though he already had two copies at home, but explaining that books have multiple editions is a little advanced for the One Fish, Two Fish, Red Dragon, Two Towers phase of reading.) I made up stories as a kid, started writing them down in elementary school, and kept it up. So it’s my natural genre, the one I grew up with, the one in which my ideas naturally manifest.

And history?

History was a later fascination. I enjoyed all kinds of documentaries as a kid, and expected to go into science since I was great in all my science classes. But when I started at Simon’s Rock College we had a required Great Books reading course. I remember reading in Civilization and its Discontents about Freud’s “Death instinct” and I remembered about a documentary I had watched about WWI, and it felt to me like Freud wouldn’t have had that idea before the war. So I went to the library to his complete works and looked through pre-war pieces and found places where certainly would have mentioned it if he’d had that concept but it wasn’t there. It was the first time I realized that historical events shape ideas, that even the greatest philosophical concepts don’t come from the raw stuff of people’s heads but come into being because people live through changes in the real world. I became fascinated by the history of ideas, how the range of concepts available to us expands over time, and how one era’s heresy might be another era’s truism. If every other subject involves studying what we think is true, then the history of ideas is studying why we think those things are true, how our culture decided on those ideas and not others, when they started, and what other things we might have believed had we been born at different points in time and space.

We often ask how has geography (including place, culture, economics) influences an author’s work. In this case your books, fiction and nonfiction (Lucretius in the Renaissance) have drawn heavily from Renaissance and Enlightenment Italy. What fascinates you the most about that place and time?

Most of the overt historical references in the book are French Enlightenment—Voltaire, Diderot, de Sade, the looming specter of Thomas Hobbes—but the Renaissance comes into it, not in the references, but in the relationship of this world to its past. One important part of every culture is how it describes, chops up, and values its own past. What past eras were there? Which were good or bad? These ideas aren’t defaults, they change over time. In the 1430s the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the “Dark Ages” and suddenly history had three parts (ancient (good), dark ages (bad), “modern” i.e. Renaissance (trying to be good again)), whereas before that it had two (before Christ (bad), after Christ (good)), and before that in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans’ imagined history had three or four parts (golden age, silver age, bronze age, iron age). Ours has different parts too, and we idealize some and criticize others. The world I designed in 2454 has a very similar relationship to its past to what the Renaissance had, which is to say that, like the Renaissance, 2454 is having a big revival of the ideas of an earlier era (in its case Enlightenment; in the Renaissance’s case antiquity), and that revival is causing big cultural and political transformations. In both cases it’s not the first revival of such things (antiquity had an earlier revival in the Carolingian period, and my imagined future had a small Enlightenment revival in the 22nd century but is having a bigger one in the 25th). It’s a different kind of cause of change than I think most SF authors think about. When depicting a science fictional world having an upheaval, we usually think of a technological cause (sudden light speed travel! cloning! immortality serum!), or a circumstantial one (out of fuel! overcrowded! incoming asteroid!), or a big discovery (new planet! new aliens!). But big uphevals can also be caused by purely cultural changes, in the case of the Renaissance the impulse to revive antiquity, which was a response to a bunch of other changes but itself became the big transformer. Studying that gave me the idea that the transformation of my 25th century could have a similarly cultural root.

Do you think writing for an audience of historians is different than for an audience of SFF readers?

It’s the reading mode that is different, more than the people. Many academics read and enjoy SFF, including myself, but we read a history in different ways from how we read a science fiction novel. F&SF readers in particular have a certain way of learning about an unfamiliar setting, which is different from how we do it in a history. Histories—both academic histories and popular histories—explain their subjects and settings directly; when a new unfamiliar thing is introduced it’s explained and connected to other things, systematically. A well-crafted history will introduce many new facts and details, planning the order of them carefully so they all fit together, each connecting to the next in order, because connections form long-term arguments, and connections also help us remember things. Reading genre fiction (including historical fiction) we learn new world details a different way. We expect that there will be small references to unfamiliar elements peppering the book constantly, and we know to collect these like puzzle pieces, setting them aside in our memory, trusting that the author will make them fit together later to form a more complete picture. SFF readers do it naturally, but it’s genuinely a learned skill, and very intelligent readers with no experience of genre fiction reading sometimes struggle with SFF because they come to the first unfamiliar thing and stop, puzzling it over, trying to figure it out at that moment, expecting it to be explained at the time, and that if it doesn’t make sense yet they must have missed something. If puzzling and rereading doesn’t solve it, such a reader usually moves on, forgetting the detail, because there’s nothing to connect it to, so it’s hard to remember. In a sense, history means giving the puzzle pieces in order, each followed by the ones it connects to, so they gradually, logically reveal an image; genre fiction means giving the reader scattered puzzle pieces that don’t connect, so fragments of a mysterious image form until it’s partly visible, and the reader is excited by the hints and clues offered by the partial glimpses, and the process of trying to guess what the big picture is before the last pieces are revealed.

The other thing that really struck me about Too Like the Lightning was how it felt like a manga or anime as it would have been produced in the Eighteenth Century. It was incredibly vivid and visual, and I know you’re a fan of those forms as well. Can you tell me how you think genre and format influence each other?

Interesting question. It’s possible that my ways of pacing how I describe facial expressions between dialog is influenced by the pacing of conversation and expression work in anime, though if so I’m not conscious of it; my styles of visual description in the books are consciously based on the way Robert Fagles renders Homer, and the way Arthur Conan Doyle in the Holmes short stories uses descriptions of architecture and atmosphere to control the pacing of revelation in a dialog scene. I would say the main influence that anime and manga have had on Terra Ignota is that, unlike a lot of SF authors, I’m responding to Japanese conversations about science fiction in addition to Anglophone ones. Throughout the 20th century American SF was translated into Japanese, and Japan has had a lot of authors, many working in anime/manga media, who have responded to classic SF concepts and developed them in different ways from how they were developed in the US and UK. To give one example, while US & UK SF authors have been having a conversation about AIs and robotics, and developed certain conventions, default expected developments, and big questions that we’re all familiar with, like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, but over the same years Japan has had its own conversation about robots, AIs, robot laws and ethics, responding to Western ones but contributing lots of new original ideas. I talk about SF as a conversation, and when the golden age proposed ideas, Japan responded. Recent readers of The Three Body Problem have had a taste of a similar phenomenon, seeing how a Chinese author who read classic Western SF responded, but from a different direction, contributing excitingly different new ideas. Because anime and manga are easy to find in English and French, Japan is one of the easiest other science fiction traditions to access, and I really enjoy great works of Japanese SF, like Phoenix, Pluto, They Were 11, or Gunbuster, not because they’re in anime/manga form, but because they’re full of fascinating and original SF ideas and questions. A lot of Western SF authors and readers haven’t accessed what Japan has been doing, so sometimes I’ll see an American SF work that’s dealing with robots and think to myself, “Wow, this author clearly doesn’t know what Japan has done with this concept, but I sure wish he did because his response would be awesome!” Thus Too Like the Lightning isn’t consciously responding anime/manga as media, but it is consciously responding to some of the big SF questions that Japan has explored using those media.

And finally, a very serious question to close: Do you write with a lucky pen or pencil?

No. After so much typing, my wrists are in such bad shape that writing by hand is very challenging, though physical therapy is helping me make great strides. But I do have a favorite pencil—it was a present from my Dad, and is black with a little Greek helmet on the eraser end, and a quotation of one of my favorite lines from the Iliad (Fagles translation of course!): “The God of War is impartial, he hands out death to the man who hands out death.”

Ada Palmer’s next book in the Terra Ignota sequence, Seven Surrenders, will be released in February 2017.