We are thrilled to welcome Tricia Sullivan back to the Gollancz Blog for the final part 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 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 last of the series, and though I say it myself, it’s a corker.
Stephanie Saulter is a writer of literary science fiction. She was born in Jamaica, earned her degree at MIT, and has been based in London since 2003. Her near-future ®Evolution trilogy: Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration use the lens of an altered humanity to take a new look at the old issues of race, class, inequality and social conflict.
I interviewed Stephanie by e-mail near the end of 2015.
You studied anthropology at MIT. How do you think this equipped you to frame the intersection of society and technology?
Anthropology provides a structured way of thinking about culture and mapping the memetic reactions that drive cultural change. One of the things I wanted to do in the ®Evolution books was examine how a disruptive technology actually disrupts; so there’s a meta-narrative thread that follows how changes in one area create a domino effect from platform to platform until no aspect of the social fabric remains unaffected. The avalanche of digitally coded information creates a medical crisis; this leads to the radical alteration of the human genetic code; which in turn impacts on cultural and social codes; by the final book there’s a new revolution underway, this time in the energy market. I’m less interested in the details of the technology than in what those changes do to a society, to people’s relationships with each other and the world around them. What happens when new modes of being slide up against ancient primal responses and fragile human psychology? How does a knowledge of previous disruptions inform the handling of new ones? There’s no mathematically precise way to model all of the actions and reactions within a social system, but neither are they simply random: there are patterns and triggers and tipping points. It may not be predictable, but it is understandable.
So one aspect of the anthropological influence was to illuminate how and why change occurs. But I also wanted to demonstrate that observational, analytical mode of thought quite overtly to the reader, by making an anthropologist one of the central characters across the series and by privileging his role as witness. He provides a lens for contrasting a rational, progressive approach to change with the kind of reactionary politics that tends to see social evolution as negative.
A lot of the technology in ®Evolution is inseparable from the bodies of the protagonists—the Gems—who are genetically modified. They experience the world differently to a typical human, and also differently to one another. What kind of research did you do to construct them?
I build stories around what I’m already interested in and engaged with; part of the attraction is that it’s a way of performing a grand analysis on something that intrigues me. So I didn’t have to do a lot of research in order to come up with the gems, because they are informed by my existing facination with genetics. Life exists and persists because of an astonishingly fecund molecular language – and we’ve already started rewriting that language, transposing elements between different species. I wanted to ensure that nothing I proposed was implausible, so there’s no mysterious anti-gravity that allows a person to fly, or an inexplicable ability to affect the weather or shoot lasers from your eyes or teleport. Every supernormal ability that a gem has is already encoded in the DNA of a living creature. I had to do a bit of fact-checking about the extent of some of those abilities, but once you know that, for example, many animals perceive different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that we might be able to splice and dice the relevant bits of code and end up with someone like Gaela who can see all the way from ultraviolet to infrared.
The interesting question then becomes, what place does such an engineered person have in the world? My other ongoing preoccupation, which is very much on display in the construction of the gems, is the perverse social logic of discrimination. The fear, bigotry, civic and economic inequality, even ideas about who is or is not fully human that play out in the ®Evolution draw hugely on the Caribbean history of enslavement, emancipation and institutionalised injustice that we’re all still burdened by. But even those legacies are complex, confused, contested. I’m a pale-skinned, mixed-race, middle-aged woman of some education and privilege from a country whose culture is the product of empire. That means I live with the legacy of dehumanisation, without suffering anywhere near the worst of its consequences. It is a very bitter cocktail, comprised of equal parts guilt and relief. I inhabit a liminal space; no research is necessary. A lot of what I was doing with the ®Evolution was trying to map my thinking about genetics and science and progress against the fallout of our terrible history.
The Gems are struggling to make a place for themselves in future Britain. As we are having this conversation, xenophobia is broadcasting loudly around us. Would you talk a bit about how you approach this in your work?
The thing about xenophobia, and indeed all bigotries, is that they’re always transmitted via a narrative that presents itself as fact – even though these narratives are rarely evidenced and often contradictory. One of the most astute recent observations on the phenomenon is the graphic of ‘Shrödinger’s immigrant: simultaneously stealing your job and too lazy to work’. But no matter how little sense these stereotypes make, they’re incredibly difficult to tear down because they reinforce the conservative belief in an inherent moral superiority, which for a lot of people is the basis for their own sense of identity. So the false facts are taken as prima facie justification for oppression, and the rest of us waste endless amounts of time and effort trying to convince those who have swallowed the cultural Kool-Aid that the things they believe to be true are in fact false.
My approach to this in the ®Evolution is to invert the argument. Instead of trying to grapple with the fallacies of biological determinism – be they around race, gender, sex, sexuality, whatever – I made the gems a genetically altered minority, engineered for the benefit of the norm majority. Their biological distinctiveness is a given. That allows us to refocus the question: to what extent does the distinction matter? Is an altered human less human? Do we really want, every one of us, to be categorised by how closely we adhere to some genetic mean? Or should the degree of one’s humanity be judged by the way we treat each other? Because if you decide that that’s what matters, all the biodeterministic nonsense falls away. You’ve flipped the narrative. The false facts are not only false, they’re unimportant.
It’s interesting the way the books have emerged as parables for immigration. I think the metaphor is equally apt for issues of gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disability, socioeconomic status – the list goes on. The politics of division and exclusion are pretty similar across the board.
The building of community is central to your stories. There is a familial feeling among the Gems; they look out for one another in a hostile overculture. One might even argue that their social glue is more important than the talents—though these are considerable—of individual members. What inspirations were behind your thinking on community?
That aspect of the books was born out of frustration with popular literature’s tendency to elide the significance of community while focusing on individual protagonists and antagonists; it’s often shown as important only to the extent that it motivates the hero or the villain. There is a well-worn (though rarely commented upon) trope that portrays community – be it family, tribe, congregation, colleagues – primarily as a constraint. The hero’s role is to push against this constraint, and the story concludes with him or her overthrowing the social structure, or attaining an unexpectedly high status within it, or escaping it entirely.
Now I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with stories that lionise the individual, but I was disturbed that I wasn’t seeing many – or any – approaches that give equal respect to the collective. Let’s face it: we are a social species. Every person, no matter how solitary and intrepid, is a product of the vast space-time web of human connections that we experience as culture. Yet we constantly prioritise tales of individual exceptionalism over those of collective endeavour. I have my theories about why this is – I suspect it’s partly a holdover from our history of feudal social structures, which privilege the aristocratic notion that some people are innately “better” than others – but whatever the reason, I’m tired of it. So I consciously set out to create a social group whose members are individually distinctive and often very powerful, but whose real strength lies in their sense of belonging and commitment to the group. I wanted to portray a collective that is an enabler for its members instead of a constraint – despite them all, individually and collectively, being marginalised and subject to discrimination in the wider society. I find that a lot more realistic than the lone wolf hero. Embattled communities tend to have strong internal bonds and a high degree of cohesion. It’s certainly possible for individuals to evade or minimise their own oppression, but that’s a strategy of avoidance, not elimination. If you want to tackle group prejudice, you need to do so as a group.
In Regeneration we see into the inner workings of Thames Tidal, an organization using quantum battery power to overthrow the energy sector. Their science and engineering is done collaboratively with very little sense of hierarchy. Did you have models in the real world for this?
The best jobs I’ve ever had have all been collaborative and collegiate. They’ve also been the ones that generated better outcomes, in terms of finding a solution to whatever problem we were tackling. I’m convinced that a collaborative approach encourages greater creativity, more experimentation, bolder thinking. Colleagues in a lateral structure are more likely both to support and constructively challenge each other, and to come up with ideas that are genuinely innovative. There’s less fear. Whereas my least productive and pleasant professional experiences, the ones that have felt as much like a threat as an opportunity, have been those that were part of a rigid hierarchy.
So I suppose that Thames Tidal Power is my ideal workplace, and business model. It’s been observed with some disappointment that capitalism still prevails in the Britain of the ®Evolution, 100+ years into the future. Well: I’m afraid I don’t think the global profit-based economic structure is going anywhere anytime soon. The reasons that it developed in the first place and continues to persist aren’t going to just disappear, because they are rooted in human nature and culture, and one of the points of the books is that these are slow to change. But I do think we’re beginning to see an evolution of the capitalist model. I think that as we relinquish our cultural commitment to the idea of hierarchy, more and better ways of working will become evident. I don’t believe we’ll stop generating wealth, but I hope we’ll develop models that distribute rather than concentrate it. Those ideas underpinned a lot of the plot in Regeneration; both the Thames Tidal and Zavcka Klist storylines pivot around attitudes to the sharing versus the accumulation of wealth.
In Regeneration, teenaged Gabriel becomes a social media meteorologist-cum-magician as he controls the public face of the company. There’s a very real sense in which control of the media amounts to controlling territory in a war. Can you talk about this a little?
When I was writing the Gabriel storyline, positioning his role at Thames Tidal as that of a military strategist fighting a propaganda war via a very sophisticated set of social media tools, I wondered whether readers would find it plausible. Then, a few months after I turned in the manuscript, I read about a troll hub in St Petersburg that is already doing, in a highly structured and organised way, exactly what Gabriel and his opponents are doing in the novel. I realised that if anything I was behind the curve, not ahead of it.
Combat via social and news media is something that we can see happening now. Its dimensions are political, commercial, cultural. The concept of territory has shifted, and along with it the balance of power. Out here in the real world, politicians and generals have not quite caught up with this yet. Their strategies for conflict are still constructed around a geographical understanding of the world. Digital natives are way ahead of them in terms of being able to disconnect the idea of spheres of influence from geopolitics. I think that historians of the future will look back at the late 20th and early 21st centuries as the decades in which people’s sense of tribal belonging or brand loyalty or political patriotism ceased to be locational. Real power will increasingly reside with those who can control and influence our shared psychological territory: our online social spaces and our public discourse, which already are no longer mediated by the traditional gatekeepers of religion, journalism and academia.
It’s easy to complain that those spaces are now lawless and anarchic, and the voice of the mob too often prevails. This is true, but the prospect of a polite, policed alternative troubles me even more. I think the greatest risk to our intellectual and cultural freedom would be a sanitised, censored digital nation-state in which conformity to approved norms are made mandatory.
Lots of science fiction is cautionary in nature, or dystopian, even technophobic. Your work envisions a future where technology opens up vaulting possibilities for human development. Given the enormous turmoil and darkness surrounding change—which you tackle head-on—what was it like to create a story about the dawn of a new humanity?
Honestly? It was a relief. I’m so over predictions of doom. There’s an insidious conservatism buried within the standard SF dystopia: at its core it’s telling you that change is bad, that the status quo is a better deal for you than anything that might replace it. It’s a grim, limited view of the future. I’ve realised that one of the reasons I write is to challenge ideas that I find problematic or narrow, and one of these is the conventional cultural narrative that equates change with disaster and experimentation with immorality. I’m sick to the back teeth of the “We don’t know what will happen!” argument against innovation. Of course we don’t. When did we ever? Why should that stop us? When did we lose faith in our ability to mitigate the problems we can foresee, and to solve the ones we didn’t?
There is a real arrogance to the notion that humanity has already reached some sort of apex. It’s as though, having got to grips with the concept of evolution, we’ve misunderstood it as somehow ending with us; we’ve failed to understand that it is an ongoing process. And because we are social beings, our evolutionary pathway is as embedded in our languages and cultures and technological capabilities as in our genetic potential. So my guiding question wasn’t whether humans and human society will change; that for me is a given. What I wanted to explore was how the changes might happen, given a particular set of triggers and parameters. And while many of the decisions that get made along the way are clearly unethical, resulting in great suffering and injustice, they are nevertheless part of the overall evolutionary process that leads us in the end to, as you put it, the dawn of a new humanity. As one of the characters says in Binary, ‘You go through what you go through to get to where you are.’ A crisis isn’t necessarily a disaster, a disaster can also be an opportunity. If the humans who emerge from crisis, disaster and persecution in a couple of hundred years are markedly different from ourselves, why should we object? Are we who our ancestors were? Would we want to be? No? There you go then.
As a science fiction writer, how do you see your role in the ongoing conversation between science and art and society?
I think it’s important to challenge the either/or binary distinction between the arts and the sciences, along with the notion that the arts and humanities are somehow more a product and producer of culture than science and technology. If culture is understood as the complex of human achievements and customs at any given moment, we would do well to remember that scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations in medicine, agriculture and information transfer have done far more to alter the way we live – and the health and length of our lives – over the past century than anything that’s happened over that time in the arts. But the arts and humanities are nevertheless crucial: they are how we understand and contextualise our changing lives and our changing world. The idea that these are separate territories, and that art that contemplates science is an inherently less noble venture than art that contemplates, say, politics or the family, is one of our most culturally counter-productive deceptions. We should get rid of it.
While I’m on the topic of art vs. science, another damaging nonsense we ought to dismiss is the persistent rumour that one is either creative or rational, logical or emotional, artistic or scientific. Dear fellow humans, take it from me: it is entirely unremarkable to be good at both math and music, chemistry and literature, physics and dance. They are all concerned with structure, and pattern, and the making of connections. They are all elements of culture.
Can you tell us anything about what you are working on/publishing next?
I know it’ll be a departure from the ®Evolution books, because I’m ready for a different kind of challenge. I don’t think it’ll be a straightforward science fiction novel. It’ll definitely be speculative. The truth is it’s taking shape so slowly that I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to turn out to be in the end! But I can tell you that I’ve become deeply interested in the power of story; particularly in those cultural narratives that are so powerful they end up being taken for absolute truth. I’m hoping it’ll be a book about what happens when people believe in different kinds of stories.