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Interview: Geoff Ryman on “Those Shadows Laugh”

Tell us a bit about “Those Shadows Laugh.”

THOSE SHADOWS LAUGH is a utopia.  Most of us now feel the future will be awful and that we must do something to make it better.   I don’t think we can do that if we don’t really feel the future can be a better place.

But on the other hand, readers are well aware of how people fall short morally.  The amount of work to create utopia and to keep it going looks insurmountable. So a modern utopian story will need to face up to how bad people can be and how complex and complicated and self-wounding they are.

So there is I hope a pretty wrenching conflict in the main character’s story.  Part of Maria’s panic comes from her knowing that she’s overstepped the line with Evie.  She can’t quite face that she’s done something wrong.  Though in another way she does know it, which is why she panics.

Then bewilderingly for her and I hope for the reader too, the elders of Colinas Bravas want her gone for other reasons, reasons that Maria doesn’t get.  And of course there are things that the elders don’t get.   They want Maria gone because she wants to marry Evie, something that has no place in their culture.

I still hope that the readers can find it in their hearts to forgive Maria.  She really did want to marry Evie.   She wants to live on the island for reasons we can share.  She loses everything, but still hangs on to the hope of being let into the island.  But of course the Colinas won’t.

I had a lot of fun imagining what the discovery of an all-women community in the 1870s would have done to world culture.  Maybe too much fun – about half the word length –maybe another 3000 words – was at one point about how the whole world would have been different with the example of a living, working all-women society.  All that alt history overwhelmed the story of my main character.  All that’s left of it is a description of the 1936 Munich Olympics.  The Chancellor of Germany is not Hitler but a woman.  With no World War Two, Casablanca the movie was never made.  So there are little signs that this is a counterfactual history.  What was lost was any sense of how the example of a working community of women could change history.


Was “Those Shadows Laugh” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s hard to imagine writing a story that isn’t personal in nearly every way – it all comes from what you know, what interests you, and your own experience.

Over the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with the Dominican Republic.  It has the most incredible history; it is the seed from which all of the Americas grew for good or ill.  I’ve been there now about six times.  One trip I drove high up in the mountains to Constanza, which is a cold Caribbean city – apples and frost.  Pico Duarte is the highest point in the Caribbean at 11,000 ft.  Nobody thinks of the Caribbean with mountains.  So my hero is a Dominicana with both good and bad memories of her homeland.  Her Dad would take her hiking high up in the hills.  My utopia was settled by Taino Indians – the people who first met Columbus.  These women had sailed west from the Caribbean centuries before and found an island to settle in the Atlantic, a bit like St. Helena – but without committing a single act of genocide.  So I had fun imagining a Taino community of women who reproduce by parthenogenesis.  Basically they naturally clone themselves.  It was fun to imagine how they managed to prosper in a world of gunboat diplomacy.


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

Ah well.  Basically a BBC producer, Nicola Swords, asked me to front a radio documentary about the book Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  It was a lot of fun to do; we talked to a lot of very knowledgeable people about the book and it was a good 45 minute radio show.   And yes, it also got me thinking about how a feminist utopia might actually work.  Gilman was very smart about the women mutating so that they reproduced asexually.  What would a society be like if you didn’t need anyone else to reproduce?

Nicola also pitched a companion short story to be read on radio alongside the documentary – which was lovely for me.  I love acting, and of course I love commissions.   I ended writing about 3.5 stories for Nicola. This story was way too long to be read aloud.  The story that made the cut was called “No Point Talking” – it’s less than 2000 words, very succinct.  It’s about a feminist utopia that comes about by accident.  The conservatives succeed is splitting California into two states, one of which will always elect two conservative Senators.  The result is that East California—San Francisco and north of LA – becomes a haven for women, immigrants and LGBTIAN peoples.  A utopia in fact.  But my narrator hates it – and that’s the conflict.  “These Shadows Laugh” was way too long for radio, but the wonderful folks at F&SF decided to go with it.

I don’t know how it works in the USA, but in Britain, producers are the creative heart of the culture.  TV, radio, films — they are the people with the ideas who make things happen, the ones with the vision.  The producers go in and pitch and put together the team.  If I had my life to live over again, I might just become a producer instead.  But once I thought producers were loudmouths with cigars and no taste who undermined creativity.  You live and learn.


What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Towards the end of the story Maria comes up with a theory about how ownership of women in marriage may have influenced possessiveness in general – greed, acquisitiveness, territoriality.  Patriarchy and conquest and capitalism go hand in hand?  Maybe she’s right, though such a flawed person.


“Those Shadows Laugh” appears in the September/October 2016 Special David Gerrold issue of F&SF.

You can hear the radio documentary on Herland at

You can hear Geoff read the companion story ‘No Point Talking’ at

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