We are thrilled to welcome Tricia Sullivan to the Gollancz Blog for a 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 have arrived on 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 first in a four-part series.
Karen Lord, a Barbadian author and research consultant, won so many awards for her debut novel Redemption in Indigo that if I had to read them all aloud to you I might require an oxygen tank. Her SF novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards. Its sequel, The Galaxy Game, was published in January 2015.
I interviewed Karen by e-mail just after the New Year.
You have a background in physics as well as a PhD in the sociology of religion. In your work, science is sewn into the story seamlessly in a way that appears effortless. Despite being considered fantasy Redemption in Indigo is underpinned with ideas from physical science, and your other books have the full set of SF trappings—mindships, higher-dimensional space travel, bio-engineering, and lots of psionics treated in practical terms. In your books the science is done by collaborative groups, not lone geniuses, and characters actually go off and write papers about things that happen in the story! How conscious are you of the degree to which your work is infused with science? Do you think it’s just second nature to you at this stage?
It does feel like second nature. Suspension of disbelief is far easier for me to attain as a reader; when I’m writing, the story has to make sense at a more rigorous level. I also find it easier to handwave hard science by imagining the undiscovered and inexplicable (to the layperson at least) than to handwave how people and societies behave (behaviours that have endured for millennia and are likely to continue into the future).
Has the growth of social media, big data, and the groupmind affected your thinking about the way science and society will look in the future? Do you think we’re seeing qualitatively different behaviours from people now that we are all so connected?
I’ve almost pre-answered that! I think we’re seeing different manifestations of similar behaviours. Gossip, power games, celebrity, obsession – these are all common; but the speed of response, the reach of the audience – those have changed. But we still have the same brain capacity that limits how many meaningful human connections we can make. We still have the same blunders of false logic and emotion masquerading as rationality. Unfortunately, we also have the myth of progress and the delusion that the people we encounter represent the entire world. There are people with access to global communication and information who still act as if the small village inside their heads is all that matters.
Your work deals with heavy issues involving power from the intensely personal (domestic violence by mind control) to the largest of scales (species genocide). But also a lot of levity. I laughed out loud at the scene in The Best of All Possible Worlds where Delarua tries on a dress and discovers it has a built-in anti-gravity device in the bust. Can you talk about the role of humour—or can you talk about optimism, because I see a lot of that, too. What is the value of fun and laughter in the face of horrific events?
I love humour. In Caribbean literature, it is the main coping mechanism for existing in a state of constant horror. It’s not a naïve humour, either. It can be very dry, very wry, very cynical. But it gives us that laugh, that physical release that shakes the tense muscles loose and maybe, just maybe, forces the enemy to reconsider whether you’re easy prey. It’s relaxation and it’s baring your teeth defiantly at risk and loss.
And on a related note, I am very disappointed at the slow rate of technological advancement in women’s clothing and I hope it is addressed very soon.
Absolutely! Engineers need to get on to that. So, after the success of Redemption in Indigo, you could have gone on writing in what I guess we might call a fabulistic vein, but instead you plunged into a large-scale planetary romance set against a galactic backdrop with complicated technology, multiple cultures and a long history. I’m aware that sometimes, what feels like a big shift in genre to a reader seems a perfectly natural next step to the writer. Did it feel like a big change from your point of view?
It was a big change, but that was to be expected. I wrote Redemption in Indigo in 2003. I wrote The Best of All Possible Worlds in 2009. In between I wrote two theses, MPhil and PhD, and assisted in a number of historical and socioeconomic research projects. Redemption was also a unique kind of book, drawing very directly and purposefully on the storyteller voice belonging to that genre. That voice can’t be used for many other stories. And I like challenge. I like to sound different. I can’t bore myself or the book won’t get finished.
In Best of All Possible Worlds, Delarua has psi abilities, and interestingly of all the talents you could have given her, you chose to give her the power to telegraph her pleasure, and also the ability to make people feel relaxed. It felt to me like a push against the usual heroic-protagonist tough-guy persona—was it a deliberate choice? Or was Delarua already in your head telling you how she wanted to be written?
I … hmm … that’s a question that’s making me think. Characters do tell you who they are, but they’re still a part of your subconscious. I think Delarua was meant as a representation of typically Terran psi-power. There’s a certain style of celebrity – how does it work? Make people feel good, make people feel like they’re invited into your living room, your inner circle, your intimate self. It’s charisma, basically, but framed differently. Even tough-guy heroes have a version of it, with follower-fans who are desperate to be noticed and accepted by sempai, and hooked for life once that is granted. But Delarua’s a different kind of hero who has had to fight by deflection and distraction rather than attack, the kind who does more damage because she projects an image that makes people underestimate her. So yes, perhaps that part was deliberate. Paama is a bit like that too, isn’t she?
People definitely do underestimate Paama (from Redemption in Indigo). You’ve described the Caribbean as the ‘cradle of humanity’ and an ideal setting for imagining the mixing of extraterrestrial cultures, especially under circumstances of forced migration and genocide. Can you talk a little about what it means to you to be a Barbadian writer in a US-centric market? What changes would you like to see to help writers from your community to reach a wider audience?
This is probably a bad marketing strategy on my part, but I primarily think of myself as a Barbadian writer in a Commonwealth market. There’s a shared language of colonialism and postcolonialism, and a shared set of literary references that make my work understood in Canada and Australia and beyond. And even outside the Commonwealth, in non-England Europe, I think the complexity of culture and language and political dynamics in my stories are appreciated.
What changes … I want to see the development and expansion of regionally-based structures to support and promote our writers here and in the diaspora.
A lot of SF is of the cautionary-tale stripe, and of course we’re coming through many years of story after story of post-apocalyptic ruin. I always suspect that part of this is because it’s pretty easy to imagine a future full of doom and terror but a lot harder to imagine a way forward that doesn’t end badly. Your work is optimistic and visionary. I would say it even has healing qualities. I don’t know if this is really a question, but I’d like to know what you think about the conscious imagining of a future that is progressive. How do you do it?
Thanks for that compliment. I don’t consciously strive for optimism in my work, but I do have an underlying bias – I find it hard to celebrate collective pessimism. Humanity has never sailed forward with ease. We lurch through history in a zigzag, progressing and regressing, sometimes both at the same time. The best cautionary tale isn’t ‘we broke it, game over’. It’s ‘we broke it, and we can either suffer passively or try to fix it’. So it’s not merely optimism, it’s activism. We can all agree we’ve got problems, now where are the solutions? My books may be positive, but there are no pure happy-ever-afters. A brief taste of it in a moment, perhaps, but nothing lasting while there’s still work to be done.
And of course, regardless, we find ways to laugh at and through terror. We have to. You don’t read grimdark dystopia (I use the terms loosely) on an empty stomach. You read it in a comfortable nook with tea and biscuits at your side. If you already know what hunger is, you don’t want the cautionary worst-case scenarios. You want to read about feasts. As long as our region remains vulnerable to real and not hypothetical apocalypse, I’ll keep imagining solutions and progress and even success.
Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now?
I recently edited an anthology of Caribbean SF by emerging writers. It’s scheduled to be launched in the last weekend of April at the Bocas Lit Fest, and I’m very excited to see what people will think of it. I’ve also got a couple of manuscripts in the pipeline, but I won’t give details until I have something concrete to say about publication dates. As for the future, I’m beginning another manuscript, very light on the speculative, possibly even realist! Challenging myself again!
Don’t ever stop, Karen. Thank you for the interview! I look forward to the anthology and your next novel release—I hope it will be soon. Readers, have a look at all of Karen Lord’s books and follow her on Twitter @Karen_Lord