Interview: Carolyn Ives Gilman on "Arkfall"
Tell us a bit about the story. What’s it about?
“Arkfall” is a story about three inadvertent explorers who find themselves on a journey across the undersea depths of an ice-bound planet. Osaji is a dutiful young woman who secretly rebels against the social demands of her communal society; Jack is a raging individualist haunted by his past; Mota, Osaji’s grandmother, is a gentle old lady slipping into dementia after a lifetime of self-sacrifice. The three of them end up on parallel, but not identical, journeys of discovery.
What’s the genesis of the story—what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?
Stories never have just one inspiration for me; they need several. In this case, the story evolved from a daisy chain of speculations, starting with the setting. I was reading about Europa, a planet-sized moon covered by a global sea that is capped with ice, and I naturally thought, “What if there are deep sea rift zones there, as on Earth? Couldn’t life evolve there as it did here, based on the heat and minerals from deep-sea vents rather than photosynthesis from sunlight?” This was before we knew about Enceladus, which almost certainly does have volcanic activity under the ice, since it spews out eruptions of water vapor laced with organic compounds.
That first speculation led to: “What would it be like to live in such an environment?” As I thought about it, it seemed like life under an ice-capped sea would be claustrophobic and cautious, so I invented the sort of society that would be needed to cope with such an environment. But it also seemed to me like a failure of imagination to assume that residents of such a world would stick with our mechanistic technologies. So I posited a type of technology that doesn’t start with physics, but with biology. Rather than building habitats and ships inspired by the brittle clockwork mechanism, this society would invent things modeled on the pliable living cell. That is where the idea for the arks came from. They are essentially giant cells in which human beings live like resident mitochondria, drifting on the cyclical currents of the sea.
All of this added up to an interesting setting, but not to a story. The story came from more personal experiences—watching my family members cope with the old age and death of my grandmother a number of years ago. In traditional science fiction adventures, characters are magically isolated from the normal responsibilities of family and community. I wanted to write a story where people still have obligations like caring for elderly relatives—but manage to make discoveries and have adventures all the same. Although, as I think the story makes clear, I don’t think it would be easy.
Did the writing of this story present you with any significant challenges (i.e., was it particularly difficult to write?)
It took me years to write this story, because some parts of it were very hard to get through. If it had just been a straight adventure, I could have whipped it off in no time—but I was also working in some very personal territory, and it was hard to achieve a detached perspective and get the balance right. I have files stuffed with material I cut out.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
I read a lot about deep-sea vents and submersibles, but also about dementia and Alzheimer’s. I am aware that I have fudged some of the real technical challenges of living on the sea floor, but I didn’t think readers would be interested in long-winded explanations. At some point you just have to say, “They solved that problem. Let’s move on.”
What are you working on now?
I have a two-volume novel manuscript for sale to a good publisher, and some other short fiction in the works. But my biggest upcoming project is a nonfiction history book about the American Revolution on the frontier—the theater of the American Revolution no one knows about, between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. It is a dramatic and Shakespearian story with some characters I would love to have invented.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I have been thinking a lot about the literature of exploration and discovery. In this story I wanted to redefine the boundaries of exploration for myself. Much as I would love to experience the mysteries and wonders my characters do, my explorations will probably be in more personal and interpersonal arenas. So this story is about those, too.
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