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Interview: Deborah J. Ross on “Among Friends”

– Tell us a bit about “Among Friends.”

I call it my Quaker steampunk story, although the time period is just before the Civil War (1848). More seriously, I’m interested in the question of what happens when an entity (machine, animal, human) is treated as if it had moral authority – does it then acquire the ability to make ethical decisions because of how we have treated it? And what does it do to us if we treat the entity in that way, or if we refuse to do so?

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The original impetus came from a Book View Café anthology project. Back in 2009, Café members put together an anthology called The Shadow Conspiracy, which had as its central premise that the “Frankenstein” process paved a way for the preservation of a human personality in a perfect, immortal body. After two anthologies, the timeline had advanced from around 1816, when Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley, among others, gathered at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to the 1840s. As we were tossing about ideas for a third Shadow Conspiracy volume, the focus shifted to New World. I wanted to step aside from the concerns of the first two, Europe-centered volumes and the use of automata solely as a way of extending the lives of rich and powerful men. As I wrote, I found that my own tale was developing in quite a different direction, from mechanical devices as instruments of immortality to the relationship of flesh to consciousness and consciousness to what truly makes us human. The original project has persisted, like the vermiform appendix, in the reference to the Lake Geneva Trading Company.

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

Research came from two sources. One was my own personal experience with modern unprogrammed Quakers, who still strive to find “that of God” in every human being. Many of the phrases I used in the story are in current usage today, and the description of settling into silence and letting ministry arise from the promptings of the inward light are as valid now as they were 150 years ago. Although I am not a Quaker myself, I’ve been awed and humbled to be part of a community with people who dedicate their lives to integrity, simplicity, equality, and peace. Their activism comes not from an intellectual belief but from valuing the divine in each person. It seems to me that in our writing as well as our society, we all too readily idealize violence as a method of problem resolution. It behooves us as lovers of speculative fiction to bring more creative strategies to our stories.

The other source of research, specific to this story, was more traditional delving into the histories of various Quakers involved in the Underground Railroad, notably Thomas Garrett. A native of Delaware, Garrett was an ally of Harriet Tubman and assisted somewhere around 2,000 escaped slaves to Pennsylvania. He and fellow Quaker John Hunn were charged and tried in very much the manner I’ve depicted, including the hour-long ministry and the apology from the jury member. I find it quite amusing that there is some question as to whether Garrett was left penniless by the resulting fine or whether his hardware business languished because he spent all his time following the leadings of the Spirit.

– What would you want a reader to take away from “Among Friends?”

I would hope, a really good story, and whatever conclusions they want to draw. I read this story aloud at one of the famous potlucks at our local Meeting and was intrigued to see how it was received an audience that was sophisticated in Quaker history and traditions but unfamiliar with science fiction. This story is a door that swings both ways, bringing a rich and challenging subculture to F & SF readers, while inviting members of that culture to explore the equally rich and challenging world of speculative fiction.
– What are you working on now?

I have two novels coming out shortly:

May: Collaborators (as Deborah Wheeler) (Dragon Moon Press): A crippled Terran spaceship makes orbit around Bandar, a planet whose gender-fluid native race teeters on the brink of international war. As misunderstandings mount, violence escalates. Ultimately, it is up to the people on both sides who have suffered the deepest losses to find a way to reconciliation. About Collaborators, acclaimed writer C. J. Cherryh wrote, “This is first-rate world-building from a writer gifted with soaring imagination and good old-fashioned Sense of Wonder.”

June: The Seven-Petaled Shield (the first volume of an original fantasy trilogy) (DAW – mass market PB): Eons ago, a great king used a magical device — the Seven-Petaled Shield — to defeat the forces of primal chaos, but now few remember that secret knowledge. When an ambitious emperor conquers the city that safeguards the Shield, the newly-widowed young Queen, guardian of the heart-stone of the Shield, flees for her life, along with her adolescent son.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

Special thanks to Gretta and Jacob Stone of Doylestown PA Monthly Meeting and all my dear friends at Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting.

“Among Friends” appears in the March/April 2013 issue of F&SF.

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