- Tell us a bit about “The Mantis Tattoo.”
It’s a fantasy and a trickster story, set in the very first days of the human race, when Homo sapiens is just a few scattered, struggling tribes. The trickster god, Mantis, chooses a very reluctant young man, Nudur, as his representative and pawn, and sends him out on a quest that could save his people.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I think it started with the desire to write an epic-ish fantasy tale, with magic and warring gods and mortals caught between them. I didn’t want to set it in the contemporary world, and then I tried on the idea of setting it in a medieval world but I didn’t think I’d have much that was new to say about that, so I kept pushing back it into older and older eras, until I tried fitting it into the very beginning of humanity, and that suddenly felt like a nice rich vein.
Likewise, I knew I wanted to avoid the trickster as a coyote or a spider. This world really started to come together when I chose the culture of the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari as the starting point for Nudur’s people, since it’s one of the oldest on the planet. And, they have a trickster god named Mantis. And, they hunt big game with little poisoned arrows.
I’m a tour guide in the American Museum of Natural History. The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, which discusses what the fossil record shows us about human evolution, is one of my favorite places to take visitors. Pretty much everything in there is a writing prompt for a great story, and I felt like it’s been demanding to be used for a long while now.
- What kind of research did you do for “The Mantis Tattoo?”
The AMNH’s Hall of Human Origins was my single greatest source, and it provided the idea for the story’s main conflict.
The center of the hall is dedicated to dramatic dioramas of various hominids recreated from the fossil record, but what I think is one of the most important exhibits is off to the side and very easy to miss.
When human evolution comes up in popular culture, it tends to get abbreviated so that we imagine it as a straight linear progression towards our own familiar form – we start with something ape-like, and then we picture some developments like standing more and more upright, and getting progressively weaker and smarter and less hairy, so that every change is something that moves one step closer to ourselves, until we get to modern humans and we’ve reached the goal and we’re done. (Or, maybe since humanity is fated to continue to get weaker and smarter, we’ll go on to become hairless stick figures with giant pulsating brains.) But that’s not the way it happens at all.
On the wall of an alcove in the Hall of Human Origins there are seventeen or eighteen skulls representing various hominid species that lived over the last seven million years. It’s a timeline, though it doesn’t look like one. It looks more like a twisty, confusing family tree, with many different branches and lots of dead ends. What it shows us is that over the last seven million years or so, there have almost always been multiple hominid species living on Earth at any given time. We know there have been long stretches where there were more than four types of hominids at a time, each evolving in different directions and developing different traits and strengths. (This went on until surprisingly recently – for example, Homo floresiensis, which is nicknamed the Hobbit, is a distinct species that lived in Indonesia less than 18,000 years ago.) We have evidence that in some cases they met and interacted with each other.
The primary conflict in “The Mantis Tattoo” is about an encounter between two of these species. They have a lot of things in common; unfortunately, one of them is that neither species plays well with others, and they’re both competent enough to do something about it.
The Fathers in this story are based on Homo heidelbergensis. They are a species that originated in Africa and dispersed into several populations, some of which were much taller and broader than modern man. It’s thought that some of them migrated out of Africa and a branch of their descendants evolved into Neanderthals. The descendants of the ones who remained in Africa eventually evolved into Homo sapiens.
- What are you working on now?
Various short stories. There’s enough material in the world of Mantis and Nudur that I would like to revisit it, though I expect that will turn out to be a very different type of story than this one.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, sort of – I just took a snapshot of that wall in the Hall of Human Origins so you can picture what I’m talking about. Here it is:
The timeline starts at the bottom of the wall, and the top represents present day. Those yellow bars represent how long the species existed. Homo sapiens, at the top right, has a yellow bar representing 170,000 years, and it’s so short it’s hidden behind the skull. (The Homo heidelbergensis skull is just to the left of it, and you can see how much more bony and robust it is – put muscles on top of that, and they must have been massive.) Homo erectus, by comparison, has that giant yellow bar that says it was around for 1.8 million years. So if you judge the success of a species by how long it survived…
“The Mantis Tattoo” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.
Tell us a bit about “Little Girls in Bone Museums.”
It’s an allegory for beauty standards where a young woman is tied into a contortionist’s pose, atrophied, and turned into a living work of ‘art’.
What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
A lot of times I start with an aesthetic and I knew I wanted a woman frozen in a contortion which gave me an excuse to look at pretty pictures, especially of the older contortionists like Lena Derejska. But I didn’t really have anything else until the beginning of Clarion Week 3. I was supposed to be working on that week’s story but I was intimidated, feeling like dirt, and avoiding writing. Instead I started reading about trophy wives (this has always been my fall back career choice) and Anna Nicole Smith (as you do) and it sort of fell into place. I was still really worried how it would be received come crit time and almost turned in something else. People aren’t super fond of allegories.
Was “Little Girls in Bone Museums” personal to you in any way? If so, how?
It is, sort of. I live with beauty standards and I perpetuate them even though I know better.
What would you want a reader to take away from this story?
I would be happy if someone said, ‘this bone knot thing is disturbing but I would totally go see a debut parade’ because then I would feel a kinship in the relationship I have with beauty. Oh, and I guess I should make a distinction with how I use beauty vs. attraction. To me, beauty is a commodity and depends on acceptance across lots of people. Attraction is invaluable and personal. The two get twisted up a lot but when I say beauty I’m referring specifically to the accepted cultural standard, that weird seemingly all agreed upon pinnacle of what makes someone beautiful.
I would be over the moon if what someone took away from the allegory was at least shred of admiration how Piedra endures her fate. Here’s a woman existing with something twisted, touching every part of her life, and deteriorating her from the outside with no chance to escape but in spite of it all she manages to feel joy, not go too crazy, continue to reflect on herself and her relationships even after being laughed at, to appreciate nature, and finally, get a say in how she dies.
I was hoping you could delve into this a little further: the characters’ points of view, why the little girl in the museum wants to be a bone knot so badly in spite of the horror of it, and her grandmother’s resignation to the inevitable, seemingly.
I’ve had a ton of conversations and arguments with myself over how to answer this without rambling. So the short answer is: the little girl can’t help herself. She doesn’t find the practice horrific. She’s been told the knots are the height of beauty her entire short life and she’s convinced any sacrifices she may tangibly be aware of are worth it.
The little girl tries to explain the desire to her grandmother using words she knows she’s supposed to say because the truth is embarrassing and often confusing to the person experiencing it. I compare coveting a beauty standard to greed. You know it’s a rotten emotion. You know you’re not supposed to be feeling it and yet you truly believe that if you can just satisfy the greed you’ll be so happy for it. That’s how it feels to exist with bone knots. It’s like an itch you’re willing to take a knife to in order to get the promised relief – even when your rational self knows the knife is way worse than just letting the itch be an itch.
I struggled with the grandmother because I felt like the reader would want someone to stand up to the knot process. I want someone to stand up to the knot process but frankly I think the way we deal with beauty standards is resigned. She represents the ineffectual stance at the point we are now. If readers are frustrated with her, know I am too.
If I were to spin the story out, the girl will be all right. She’s wearing tap shoes, she’s got access to a museum which makes me think she’s also got access to a library, and she has a loving adult providing her support. That’s more than Marilyn Monroe ever had.
And there you go. I feel like everything I’ve said has all been said before!
What are you working on now?
I’m in-between things. I’m messing around with multiverses, a mini-Elvis, hotels, and beehives. The hairstyle not the bug habitat. I have a story coming up in Steampunk Magazine about tornadoes, ghosts, and genetically altered Pony Express horses.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would be an awful person if I didn’t take this space to say thank you to the people who helped me with this story. My awesome Clarion class (2012, http://awkwardrobots.org/) especially the boy who followed me home. Extra thanks to grande dames Carmen Machado and Allegra Hawksmoor whose enthusiasm for this story made me feel beautiful in a way I’d never experienced.
“Little Girls in Bone Museums” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “La Héron.”
La Héron is the story of a duelist who enters an illicit tourney only to find most of her opponents aren’t what they seem and are playing for stakes she didn’t agree to. But she’s a tough old professional with more than a few tricks up her own sleeve, so with a reluctant-nun-cum-brawler as her second, she’s determined to win it all and take the purse anyway.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The story was prompted by a writing challenge (the theme was “broken vows”) but it gave me the opportunity to write characters and situations that had been rattling around my head for a while anyway. I wanted an unbridled, swashbuckling adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, only with a cast of quirkier, more diverse characters.
- Was this story personal to you in any way? If so, how?
Not in any emotional sense, but certainly in the sense that it is the kind of thing I have always loved to dream about. I joked at first that the story is autobiographical – it’s the fantasy I want to see myself in. Of course I’m a world-wise swordmaster and prize-winning duelist. Of course.
- You have an extensive and prize-winning collection of the works of Alexander Dumas. Anything you’d like to tell us about that, Dumas, or how his work has inspired your own?
I don’t think anyone has ever written romance – and I mean that in the old sense of an epic, over-the-top, awe-driven aesthetic – better than Dumas has. Anyone who writes popular literature owes him a deep debt, whether they know it or not. I’ve always loved his work, but it wasn’t until I realized that my other favourite contemporary authors were also directly inspired by him that I realized it was okay for me to be, too. Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, Nick Harkaway, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Umberto Eco – they all cite Dumas as an influence and thank him for his inspiration. But in literary circles, Dumas is considered frivolous and infantile (see all the editions of The Three Musketeers aimed at kids.) Why is that? His work isn’t trivial – it’s passionate and clever and enduring. He shows better than anyone that you can write stories that are exciting, gripping, and plot-driven but also be emotionally powerful and important. You don’t have to be “popular” or “literature” – the masters can be both. I strive to be both. I will always strive to be both.
- It’s not common to read about a drunken, brawling nun. Tell us more about the inspiration for the character Sister Louise-Alexandrine.
That’s funny, because literature is full of stories about brawling clergymen, from Friar Tuck to Garth Ennis’s Preacher. The philosopher-warrior is a solid, ancient archetype. It seemed natural to me that any order of women who’ve chosen the independence of an ascetic existence would contain a lot of plucky, volatile members. I specifically imagined her as an illegitimate daughter of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I figure she got her father’s attitude and aptitude with the sword. She is named after Alexandre Dumas’s sister.
- What are you working on now?
I’m putting the last touches on another short story about dueling and power. I can’t shake my fascination with martial prowess. I want to keep exploring the ways martial cultures did (or might have) evolved outside of a bald desire to murder and oppress people. Can we love the physical perfection of a Bruce Lee or Miyamoto Musashi without buying into all the baggage that comes with the military – the othering of enemies, the colonialism, the murder? Are there truly honourable ways to fight each other? When your talents are physical, can you be anything other than a weapon? I find these questions interesting and I don’t think I will stray far from them for a while.
“La Héron” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear.”
In this novella, we follow the life story of a man who is born in what appears to be the China of the early 21st century. As he grows up, makes friends, falls in love, and launches a career, we gradually realize something strange: the larger events of the world appears to be happening in reverse from the order we are familiar with.
- What can you tell us about the author of the novella, Bao Shu?
Bao Shu is a rising star in the Chinese SFF scene. A prolific short fiction writer, his fame exploded with the publication of the novel, _THREE BODY X_, which is a sequel of sorts to Liu Cixin’s _THREE BODY_ series, the most popular hard SF novel series in China, and which casts the events of the series in a new light. Last year, his debut original novel, _THE RUINS OF TIME_, won the Chinese Nebula Award, one of the highest honors of Chinese SFF.
Bao Shu’s fiction tends to play with time in various inventive and surprising ways, a feature that can probably be attributed to his academic background in philosophy.
- How did you become aware of Bao Shu’s work, and why did you decide to translate it?
I had known about Bao Shu’s work because I make an effort to keep up with the Chinese SFF scene. I enjoyed his short fiction immensely, and, as a fan of Liu Cixin’s novels, I liked the way _THREE BODY X_ expanded and explained the universe of _THREE BODY_ as well.
A friend of mine, San Feng, whose opinion on Chinese SF I trust implicitly, recommended “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” as one of Bao Shu’s best stories. I read it and immediately agreed with the judgment, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a good market for it in the US or the UK, as pro-rate markets for novellas were relatively scarce. But then I just couldn’t forget about the story, and I decided to query editor C. C. Finlay to see if the magazine would have interest in a translated novella. Charles was receptive, but ultimately the translation would be done on spec. I’m glad the risk worked out.
- Can you speak at all to the historical and political context of this story, in light of its examination and reinterpretation of recent Chinese history?
As you can see from the author’s postscript, Bao Shu is reticent about claiming major political purpose for the story. I think I’ll honor his wish and follow his lead.
I wouldn’t say that the story is some sort of political manifesto. At its heart, I view it as a very human story about an individual who does his best to preserve his humanity through turbulent political times beyond his control—in that way, it is the story of most of the people of China.
- What about the political content of “What Has Passed…” got it banned in China?
Censorship in China is complicated. There are no hard and fast rules about permitted content because the official regulations are phrased in ambiguous language that is open to interpretation, though everyone understands that certain topics, such as the student protests of 1989, are extremely sensitive. The exact boundary of what could be published is hazy and constantly shifting—on purpose—and so editors and authors engage in a fair amount of self-censorship, though the exactly amount changes depending on the political climate.
The original Chinese text for this story was posted on two Internet forums for SF fans and writers and had an enthusiastic reception. (Incidentally, it is fairly common for SFF authors in China to post drafts of their stories in this manner and receive feedback from dedicated SFF fans prior to submission to and publication in magazines.) It was soon deleted from one of the forums by editors; the other forum, however, kept it up. This is an illustration of how the censorship regime in China is one of shades and gradations, and certain things could be said in certain places as long as it wasn’t too publicized.
Regardless, everyone understood that no Chinese magazine would touch this story, and the author and I both felt that translation and publication overseas would be a good way to share the story with more readers.
- As a writer yourself, what challenges and rewards does translating the work of another author present? Why do you undertake as many translation projects as you do?
Translation is a performance art, and I always feel a heavy responsibility to the original author and the original text when I perform it for a new audience. It’s a difficult art, and there are countless linguistic and cultural decisions I have to make constantly as I traverse the boundaries between one literary community and another. It’s a different sort of creativity than that employed in writing original fiction, and I’m always learning, which keeps it interesting.
I think translation also forces me to analyze what makes stories tick at a deeper level than the analysis I do as a mere reader, and so I view translation as another way to study the craft of fiction.
Finally, I feel there’s a great deal of interesting stories being told in Chinese from perspectives absent in English fiction, and so I’m happy to share these stories with my fellow English readers via translation.
- What are you working on now?
My debut novel, _THE GRACE OF KINGS_, a silkpunk epic fantasy based on the rise of the Han Dynasty, is going to be published by Saga Press on April 7, 2015. I’m now working on the sequel, which is scheduled to come out in 2016. I hope to have a few more translation projects and short fiction pieces come out later this year.
“What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” ran in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.
- Tell us a bit about “Bilingual.”
It is a story about a Japanese-American teenage girl who figures out a way to stop the dolphins in Taiji, Japan from being slaughtered every year by teaching them a meme to spread and warn each other with. It’s told almost entirely in tweets.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I wrote this story at Clarion West in 2012, under instructors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. There were several reasons why I chose this particular story to write.
I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about dolphin communication. I had had some friends over for a dinner party. They told me that when their first child was born, he would spontaneously make whistles and clicks like a dolphin. They got the idea of offering their baby to dolphin research institutes around the world to be raised with dolphins so that he would grow up naturally bilingual and serve as a translator between the species. To no one’s stun, all the research institutes declined.
This idea morphed on my plane ride up to Clarion West, during which I watched on my iPad the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” about the effort to expose the truth of the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. https://www.facebook.com/TheCove It gutted me but also filled me with hope and a resolve to do my part for this cause. Like Akari, I knew that I could not just sit by and do nothing.
- What kind of research did you do for “Bilingual?”
Most of my stories involve a lot of research but this one dwarfed them all. I had to do what felt like a novel’s worth of research for this story. Needless to say, all of the links in the story are real and lead to articles that act like an extended Director’s Cut of the story. All of the remarkable things that Pippa and the other dolphins do in the story are based on actual documented behaviors observed in dolphins. I merely stitched them together into one story. Dolphins are truly astounding beings and we are so fortunate to share this planet with them.
The most difficult part was how to take the different bits and pieces about dolphin research and make them into an engineering project that would at least theoretically work. I am no engineer but I had publicly committed to writing this story before I figured out how I would construct the critical central engineering project. However, the more that I researched, the more that the plot and engineering resolved themselves. [SPOILER AHOY] The research that I found about dolphins’ understanding of grammar was the most valuable part because it allowed for me to hypothesize a way to isolate a phoneme that meant “tell others” to prod the dolphins to spread the meme and save themselves. [EXEUNT SPOILER] In addition to the dolphin research, I also had to do research about the intricacies of how Twitter worked, engineering, teenage girl culture, and marine park management.
- Why did you decide to construct your story out of tweets, and did you find that using this form of communication shaped the way you thought about how to write it?
It was spawned by the fact that I knew that the main character had to be a teenage girl.
I knew that if I was going to write a story about a practice that makes me very ashamed to be part of the human race, I had to have a main character who makes me very proud to be part of the human race. To achieve that, I felt instinctively that the protagonist had to be someone puny and seemingly powerless who does a brave and noble thing and stands down or outmaneuvers a vast enemy. That is how I decided that the protagonist had to be a teenage girl. And not one with magical powers or vast resources or a destiny as a chosen one. Just a girl.
There were a couple additional reasons why I was drawn to writing a teenage girl voice. I want all of my stories to be as different from each other as possible and at the time that I wrote this story, I had never attempted such a voice before. I wanted to write from a viewpoint that was far removed from my own because it requires greater empathy to write so far outside of yourself. I’m a middle-aged gay man with a receding hairline. Teenage girl voice seemed like a nice, distant viewpoint to attempt to write.
In order to push my powers of ventriloquism and empathy as hard as I could, I wanted to write the teenage girl voice using an authentic teenage girl medium of communication. Teenage girls used Twitter, which I knew about but had never used. Thus, it seemed inevitable that this story would be written as tweets.
Plus, the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring protests was still swirling in the zeitgeist at the time that I wrote and set this story. The use of Twitter by protesters to organize on the ground movements in real-time among a decentralized force felt so sweepingly romantic and like a defining phenomenon that future historians and novelists and game designers would evoke when writing period pieces about the early 21st century.
I also like writing stories that are hard to write and that put a lot of stress on my powers as a writer. Writing a story in tweets, especially one involving a lot of research and a complicated, unheard-of engineering project, especially when I had never used Twitter before, seemed like a good workout for my artistic muscles. I also liked the idea of having to convey not just an unusual plot but the spirit of an extraordinary girl with a huge personality through such a cramped format. It seemed like the sort of really hard task that Akari herself would be up for. Tackling such a difficult format actually helped me to get into character to write Akari.
I wanted to write a story where the format of the story itself emphasized the central theme. Twitter grants ordinary people more access to communicate with vast numbers of people, or with people who have great influence or fame, than any medium in history that I can think of. Thus, it felt very apt to use for a story that is all about communication. Further, learning to write in tweets and using current teenage girl slang felt very much like learning a new language. I wanted readers to get that experience as well, with the initial halting, awkward reading of the text eventually giving way to more fluidity. The format never got easier to read, but you became better at reading it. Further, I wanted the reader’s growing clarity in reading the format to function as a metaphor for dawning political awareness, as we watched the growth of Akari’s activism.
Finally, I wanted to write a Twitter story where the characters’ use of Twitter was itself critical to the plot. I wanted to write a story where Twitter wasn’t used to merely report the story’s events, Twitter was used to achieve the story’s events. [MINOR SPOILERS AHOY] Thus, the recruitment, formation, and coordination of the dolphin posse girls was accomplished through Twitter itself. Further, I wanted to build in a subtle metafictional layer. I wanted the reader’s experience of reading the text to be put under the same stresses that Akari was experiencing in the plot. Thus, just as the reader began to gain traction in reading the unusual format, she was thrown the additional challenge of deciphering the frantic misspellings in the climactic final act. Those misspellings were actually the product of the challenges Akari was facing in the plot itself as she was having to tweet through Siri on the fly while evading Seatopia Security. The stress put on Akari in the plot manifested in the stress put on the reader’s ability to read the text she was producing. [EXEUNT MINOR SPOILERS] Thus, I really was striving for a complete and natural synthesis among format, theme, and plot.
- How feasible do you think Akari’s experiments might be in deciphering dolphin language?
I intended this more as a thought experiment or at best a proof of concept prototype than as an actual blueprint. However, I think that the theoretical basis is solid because the research it’s built on is solid. I think that we’ll probably figure out that dolphin language is composed of a number of simultaneous factors beyond just sound and involves organs beyond just ears and eyes. For example, dolphins “hear” rebounding echolocation sound waves mostly as vibrations in their teeth and that information gets processed in their brains into three-dimensional images. Thus, in a very real way, dolphins “see” with their teeth. Completely alien to our ideas of sensory input and communication. Thus, any effective meme or attempts to communicate with dolphins should probably take advantage of the full repertoire of senses, powers, and body parts that contribute to dolphin language. However, that doesn’t mean that dolphins would not be able to understand a crude message such as the one that Akari came up with in the dolphin meme. For story purposes, I wanted the message to be crude, improvised, and urgently captured on the fly, to convey the sense of desperate struggle to communicate across impossible odds that was the central theme of the story.
- Was this story personal for you in any way, and if so, how?
I believe that it is a noble thing to write stories about kindness, hope, and goodness. It’s also a lot harder to write a convincing story about these things than a cheaply dark or cynical story.
In addition, I’m vegan and I love animals deeply. I knew that I wanted to write more stories starring some of the other non-human beings that we share the planet with. I believe firmly that in 50 years, the future will look back on a lot of our current practices and thinking about animals with shame, revulsion, and stun at the breathtaking arrogance of humans and our sense of privilege and entitlement. I’m hoping to write stories that might do a little part to usher history along and make the future arrive a little sooner. I also believe that animals make humans better humans and that animals make us ask important questions about what it means to be human.
Further, I have a particular interest in the idea of communication across impossible divides. My former partner died of cancer in 2005. Before he died, I devised a logical, working system to continue communicating with him after he died. It all went wildly awry, but in the best possible way. I won’t go into it more here because I actually wrote a true story about it called “Supplemental Declaration of Henry Lien” that Sofia Samatar bought for Interfictions. However, I’ll just say that after that experience, I developed a deep belief that with enough ingenuity, hope, and heart, we can learn to communicate and make connections across even the most seemingly unspannable of divides.
For these reasons, “Bilingual” is intensely personal to me. If I never have another short story published, I will be content because this one means that much to me. It is my “E.T.”
- Anything else you’d like to add?
I think about the future a lot. Not how to predict it but how to shape it.
If readers would like to learn more about the efforts to stop the slaughter and exploitation of dolphins and other cetaceans around the world, they can visit https://www.facebook.com/ricobarrysdolphinproject
I believe that people who feel that the slaughter of dolphins or their lifelong confinement and suffering for our entertainment is justifiable will land squarely on the wrong side of history.
You can’t stop the future. You can only decide if you’re going to be part of it.
“Bilingual” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.