We are thrilled to welcome Tricia Sullivan back to the Gollancz Blog for the second in her series of interviews featuring some incredible science fiction writers. Tricia’s stunning new book, Occupy Me, is out now in trade paperback, eBook and audio download.
To celebrate the release of Occupy Me, I interviewed a few of the UK’s most interesting science fiction writers who are new to the scene since the last time I published a book. I wanted to learn more about their work and about the directions in which they are driving science fiction. This is the second in the series.
Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. Her most recent novel, Planetfall, has been getting lots of rave reviews. Emma won the British Fantasy Society Best Short Story Award 2015 and her debut novel Between Two Thorns was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer 2014 awards. Emma is an audiobook narrator and also co-writes and hosts the twice Hugo-nominated podcast Tea and Jeopardy which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and playing RPGs.
I didn’t have Emma’s bio in front of me when I interviewed her in December, or I’d have asked about the singing chickens. Kicking myself.
It seems apropos that a story about humanity trying to make an extraterrestrial home features a house-builder as its protagonist. In fact, Planetfall is laced with metaphor and can be read on several levels. It uses the tools of science fiction to talk about mental illness, grief, and guilt. It also has plot twists worthy of a crime novel. When you were planning the book, was it a case where you decided, ‘I’m going to write me some SF now’, or did you need the SF setting in order to reach the notes you wanted to reach?
It was more the latter, but for a slightly different reason. I knew I wanted to explore mental illness and a specific manifestation of it but I didn’t have a strong pull towards a particular genre or setting for quite some time. It was a rather strange experience researching the illness, hankering to write about the character who went on to become the protagonist, Ren, without being certain of anything else.
This was all brewing in the background as I wrote an urban fantasy series and after two years in that world, I was ready for a break from that genre. Then I stumbled across an article about the idea to build a moon base using 3-D printers transported there to print buildings using moon dust. I fell in love with the idea and it all suddenly fell into place in my mind; a distant colony underpinned by 3-d printing technology would be the perfect environment in which to explore that mental illness. So ultimately, the character drove me to choose an SF setting via the technology required to support that particular narrative.
Science-fiction was always my first love; it’s all I read in my adolescence and the genre I gravitate to naturally in film and TV too. I was intimidated by writing it though, and had my first books published in other genres. I think I needed to be driven to write about something so passionately that it carried me past the fear of not being welcomed within the genre.
It’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into thinking about the technology that keeps the colony functioning. Please tell me a little bit about your research process.
Researching fell into two categories for me: I needed to acquire enough factual knowledge to underpin the world building and make everything internally consistent and I needed to be able to understand how an engineer thinks. The latter was because I wanted to root my first-person narrative within a way of thinking that reflected Ren’s specialism, not just her mental illness, to make her a more rounded and realistic character.
In terms of the factual knowledge, there were three major technology areas I needed to understand enough to create the colony I had in mind: synthetic biology, the idea of a secondary genome and 3-d printing. I read around all three focusing on where the technology was at during the time of writing and also some speculative ideas about potential future applications – like the moon base article for example. I saw a talk given by Rachel Armstrong at the Clarke Awards in 2013 that inspired the interest in synthetic biology and I read her work on potential applications for future architecture that I found very exciting.
With regards to understanding the engineer’s mindset, I talked to my uncle who is involved in that industry and has been using industrial 3-d printers for many years. I thought a lot about how he approaches problems and also how my own experience and specialist skills in other areas affect the way I think about certain things. All of it went into the pot along with the constant reminder that I am a science-fiction novelist, not a futurologist. That freed me up to explore potential avenues of future development without fearing I’d ‘get something wrong’, though I did work hard to root as much of the technology in Planetfall in technology that exists today, logically extrapolated as far as possible.
SF has a (not always deserved) reputation of being cold and clinical in its treatment of feelings. Planetfall is the first-person narrative of a mentally ill person, and as the story picks up momentum the interior pain gets ratcheted up to wrenching levels. It’s anything but cold. Did you feel as if you were going against the grain of the genre—or didn’t you care?
Both! I was very aware that a lot of the SF I’ve read leaves me with fond memories of amazing concepts and ideas, but very few characters I’ve experienced deeply. Don’t get me wrong – I love that – but I write books that focus on character so I knew Planetfall was always going to be an emotional book. I worked hard on underpinning that character study with a mystery to drive the narrative, with the SF concepts there to frame the characters, rather than the other way round. Other SF novels have high concepts and brilliant science to primarily drive the narrative. I love that SF can accommodate all of these different types of books and give us such a breadth of experiences.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new concept in our culture. Having written Planetfall, do you feel like there’s room for wider exploration of the frontiers opened up by neuroscience? What kinds of things would you like to write—or read—along these lines?
There is definitely room. There are incredible advancements being made today that could be explored in so many interesting ways, even before extrapolating where things could be in the next ten, twenty or hundred years into the future. So many times I read about new treatments and think “Blimey, that sounds like it’s from a sci-fi story!” and it makes me so glad to be living in such exciting times. However, I’m afraid I can’t say what I’d like to read as that’s what I plan to write next, and I have a personal rule to never talk about the ideas I am brewing and working on. Sorry!
Great—that sounds intriguing. Can you talk to me about the relationship between art and science in our time? As a science fiction writer, how would you characterise your role in the cultural conversation?
I feel that science-fiction embodies a dialogue between art and science by allowing us to imaginatively explore the implications and repercussions of scientific advancement. Alongside that, science-fiction has given us cautionary tales for our time, like the modern equivalent of the warnings implicit in fairytales, and also the expression of our deepest fears. I’m thinking of the AI or horde of robots that turn against their human creators or the terrible things that happen to scientists that explore without care and caution. Of course, science-fiction explores our optimism as well as our fears; it invites us to express our longing to push into new frontiers, our love of discovery and exploration. I also feel that SF also holds up a mirror to current society and invites us to consider the impact of technology on our experience of being human. More than that, it invites scientists to imagine other uses or potential future applications for technology, a relationship between art and science that I find very exciting.
In Planetfall, I aimed to explore the intersection between technology, mental illness, religious faith and life in a small colony distant from Earth. I put the experience of an anxiety disorder front and centre because mental illness is constantly edited out of our wider cultural conversation and I feel it needs to be explored in our art as well as science in order to make it safer and easier for people who struggle with mental illness to seek help and talk openly about their experiences.
That is a role I have attempted to play in this conversation, but ultimately, whether I have achieved that or not is better judged by my readers and how the book is received. Every book is a dialogue, both within itself and between it and its readers and between the author and society. I try not to think about that when I write however. I focus on telling the best story I can. Once it goes out into the world, the best any author can hope for is that someone discovers what you’ve written and is moved in some way.