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Interview: Benjamin Rosenbaum on “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters”

Benjamin RosenbaumTell us a bit about “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters.”

I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about what we, we humans, might become — partly because it reflects on who we are now, but only partly. I’m also just honestly consumed with curiosity.

I have a fascinated skepticism about the Rapture of the Nerds school of science fictional thought (which has probably passed its peak of popularity, but I still think about it). You know the one: we upload ourselves into the cloud and live as pure minds, or build ourselves indestructible robot bodies, and that’s the end of war and disease and death and unhappiness, all of which were just problems of running on an inadequate platform or being insufficiently optimized. Like the brain is a machine and the mind is software and the body is a peripheral you can upgrade, and epistemology is as transparent as glass, and society and culture the passive amalgamation of individual decisions…

What all that gets wrong is in glibly handwaving away our ineluctable embodiedness — which amounts to a kind of philosophical dualism — the body as vehicle. It betrays a kind of dread and discomfort with the messy reality of being a body, and a touching, simplistic naïveté about ethics and ontology. It’s a smooth, appealing lie.

What it gets right, though, is about our malleability. The inverse of the Rapture of the Nerds — which would be, what, the Lassitude of the Jocks? — comfortably imagines us just plugging along as we’ve always been, and that’s equally false. It’s like the Flintsones/Jetsons model of history, in which we project dishwashers, two-car-garages, bosses docking our pay and stay-at-home-mom, bridge-playing wives into the far past and future.

if we stick around and keep fiddling with things like we have been, learning like we have been, we actually are going to change dramatically. And it will be messy, and morally fraught, and ambiguous, and unimaginable. And there will be discontents.

 

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

I actually wrote the first draft of this for a contest. It had a very specific prompt, which was basically two set paragraphs, the original first (telephone pole, soggy teddy bears) and twenty-fifth (bullhorn, milk crate) paragraphs of the story.

I like prompts a lot.

The contest seemed to be going for a very realistic-contemporary-literary take on social justice movements, in those paragraphs. We were probably meant to be in Flint or Ferguson or Baltimore, and we were probably meant to apply, to that setting, the genre techniques of literary fiction: restrained prose, closely observed precision in details of contemporary life, muted but immense emotion lurking in the background, an obsession with emotional inner life coupled with a terror of sentimentality. These sorts of techniques animated all those stories of Sad White People at Dinner Parties, all those fortysomething college professors meditating on their affairs with undergraduates, all those weary women staring out of kitchen windows thinking of cancer, who I had to read in creative writing courses at a fancy college in the eighties.

Don’t get me wrong; I like lots of exemplars of that genre. I’m a fan of Anne Tyler; I’m a worshipper of Austen. But as a set of genre expectations, it can quickly grow stifling; if I am asked to restrict myself to those set of techniques for the length of an entire story, I am apt to decide that, like Charlotte Brontë, I can hardly bear “to live with these ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses”.

And surely they are not the only techniques to apply to such a historical moment.

I am, as an American, very concerned — not to say implicated — in the outpourings of long-overdue unrest over our racist carceral state. I also am very far, in social space, from the cracked sidewalk and soggy teddy bears that that contest wanted me to talk about. For me to try to address them head-on, with the techniques of literary fiction? I don’t think I could avoid tourism, appropriation, or mawkishness.

But I thought it would be interesting to flip the telescope around and look through the other end, not with, as Charlotte said of Jane, “a miniature delicacy”, not a close observation — but, rather, to view the agents of historical change as tiny figures, seen at a great distance.  To transport the soggy teddy bears very far from the scenes of my country’s daily brutality, to situate them in an exploration of entirely different issues, to render the familiar strange.

 

Was “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s always personal, and I rarely know how. At least at first.

“Start the Clock” (F&SF, Aug 2004) is about a plague that stops aging, and the society that results from it; it’s also very much about the frustrations of househunting with old friends, trying and failing to live next door to each other in Virginia in 2003, and the acute and disappointing gap between the spirit of our childhood vows and the reality of all our adult variables and compromises. But that interpretation wasn’t consciously present when I wrote it.

Okay: I am a dislocated outsider in the place that I live; an immigrant who sometimes feels like a castaway. Like I came here for a specific purpose, little realizing what I was getting myself into. “Here” means Switzerland, mainly, but I think I also mean this universe. I have a body, or I am a body, and that body is a terribly fragile thing, gradually disintegrating, unlikely to last even another century. Somehow I have ended up stuck in this body, in this strange strand of history that often feels unreal, put-on, like a dystopian punchline.

 

Why do you write?

I like to take the things that are happening in my brain and try to make somehow corresponding things happen in other people’s brains. It makes me feel less alone. I particularly like it when lots of people do this and we all put our ideas in each others’ brains and the ideas go zing-pang-pow back and forth.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

Well my traditional answer to this question was all the people I grew up reading? I mean when I was little, Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, and then Tolkein and Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander and Tove Jannson and T. H. White and Susan Cooper, and also Asimov and Heinlein and Pohl and Hal Clement and Alexei Panshin and Le Guin and Zelazny and Michael Moorcock and David Brin and Larry Niven (some of those have aged so much better than others!), and then when I was a little older, Delany and Tiptree and Le Guin and Russ and Octavia Butler, and Neil Stephenson, and also Kobo Abe and Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera and Borges. That about takes us through high school, for prose fiction? It ignores all the films and comics and nonfiction and poetry and things. I mean, Marvel Comics and Lao Tse and the Talmud and Alan Moore and e. e. cummings too. It was almost impossible to read for fun in college, but I would not have read Gadamer or Geertz or Haraway or Kristeva or Spivak or the Ramayana or Moshe Idel or Gershom Scholem had I not gone, so fair enough. It was only after college that I allowed myself to discover Dostoyevsky and Austen and George Elliot.

This is probably more than you wanted, and I have not actually scratched the surface, because in many ways the biggest influences are actually contemporaries and compatriots, the people I trade manuscripts back and forth with and collaborate with and see excitedly at cons. If I begin to name them I will neglect too many; but you know, Cory Doctorow and Amal El-Mohtar and David Moles and Kelly Link and Ted Chiang and Meghan McCarron and Sofia Samatar and Jed Hartman and Mary Anne Mohanraj and Liz Gorinsky… oh, there are far too many to name. Also your mighty editor Charlie Finlay! Charlie is an amazing story doctor. It probably took me a decade after he started editing F&SF to cure myself of the habit of accidentally sending him stories to critique, forcing him to politely ask if they were submissions.

 

What are you working on now?

I am about to begin a final(?) round of edits for my forthcoming novel, “The Unraveling”, under the able hand of the brilliant Liz Gorinsky. It is due out from Erewhon Books in July 2020, and you should go preorder it at https://www.amazon.com/Unraveling-Benjamin-Rosenbaum-ebook/dp/B07WJ12KZN if alternate genders and dislocated revolutions and satires of modern parenting and ubiquitous sousveillance and anthropological thought experiments and wrestling with the kind of moral agency we actually have in a large complex world and how utopia doesn’t look like utopia from the inside are your cup of tea.

I am also working on a Jewish historical fantasy interactive fiction game set in 1881 in a shtetl on the border between Poland and Ukraine, and possibly a card game about revolutionaries in the asteroid belt, and maybe an alternate-anthropological story cycle about a matrifocal society with horses and swords, and also a lot of other things.

Also, my little sister, who is an accomplished indie filmmaker, is making a movie of my short story “Night Waking”, and it’s crowdfunding now on Seed & Spark, check it out: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/night-waking

 

“Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on Mr. Rosenbaum’s photo ((c) 2015 Karen Rosenbaum) to visit his website.

Interview: James Morrow on “Bird Thou Never Wert”

James MorrowWhat prompted you to write “Bird Thou Never Wert”?

The story—novelette, really—began life as a potential contribution to Ellen Datlow’s avian horror anthology, Black Feathers. But when I sat down at the computer, what came out of my brain was not a horror story at all but a fable about the uses and misuses of magic. So Ellen and I looked at each other and agreed I should let my enchanted eagle fly off on his own.

 

Was “Bird Thou Never Wert” personal to you in any way? If so, how?

I suppose any piece of fiction about a fiction writer is ipso facto personal for its author. But the dimension of “Bird Thou Never Wert” that means the most to me is the animal rights subtext. During the composition process, the cruelties visited upon my enchanted eagle turned the story into a quasi-parable about humanity’s pathological attitude toward the biosphere, the malignant idea that nature exists essentially for our benefit.

 

Can you tell us about any research you may have done for this story?

My original outline merely called for a bird whose blood and feathers (employed as ink and writing implements respectively) could turn an amateur scribbler into a master of genre fiction. At some point I decided that my eagle must be an archetype of some sort, so I looked into Hindu mythology and eventually came upon the story of Garuda and Aruna.

 

What aspect of this story was the most fun to write?

In the earliest drafts, the story was framed as a critical essay, written by my female protagonist, Marsha Waszynski, introducing an omnibus of horror stories by the late, legendary Darko Cromdahl. But I came to realize there was something incoherent about that conceit. What editor in his or her right mind would publish a collection prefaced by an exposé declaring the book a fraud? My fix made me happy. Marsha’s knowledge of Darko’s modus operandi is something she’s been keeping to herself, and she shares that inside dope, privately, only when circumstances force her to come forward. Hence the story’s epistolary form.

 

Why do you write?

I love the potential of fiction to disorient people with ideas that would otherwise never have occurred to them. If I’m thrilled and unnerved by one of my thought experiments, I figure there’s a chance the reader will have the same response.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I’m a satirist by trade, and I would have to put Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, and Joseph Heller at the top of the list.

 

What are you working on now?

In the 1980’s I did a cycle of scriptural spoofs under the rubric Bible Stories for Adults. I’ve recently rebooted the series. So far I’ve completed “The Jawbone” (an anti-NRA take on the Samson legend), “The Great Fish” (a theological phantasmagoria riffing on the Book of Jonah), and “The Twin Cities” (narrating what really went down in Sodom and Gomorrah).

 

“Bird Thou Never Wert” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on Mr. Morrow’s photo to visit his website.

Interview: Rebecca Zahabi on “It Never Snows in Snowtown”

Rebecca ZahabiTell us a bit about “It Never Snows in Snowtown.”

Our main character decides to take a guided tour of their hometown to learn a bit more about the history of the place. But despite its cotton candy and ice-skating rings, Snowtown turns out to be a lot more sinister than it seems… After all, what is this thing falling from the sky, if not snow?

 

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

I had a dream in which I was the main character walking around Snowtown, and I had an awfully bad feeling about the snow. It kept nagging at the back of my mind that the snow wasn’t right. My guide seemed nice enough at first, but in the strange way dreams have, he started mutating, turning into something monstrous. Then I woke up and wrote the end of the dream.

 

Was there any aspect of “It Never Snows in Snowtown” that you found difficult to write?

A few days after this dream, I got together with some friends and we decided we would all write a Christmas ghost story. So now I had the theme/genre, and my subconscious had given me most of the plot. The main difficulty lay in making sure the story was subtle enough that it kept that dream-like quality, without becoming confusing. The other difficulty was keeping the main character gender-neutral throughout, so people could project a man or a woman there, as they wished.

 

The theme of apparent perfection concealing its own moral corruption has a long literary history. What made you wish to engage with this theme, and in what ways did you strive to put your own spin on it?

I find Christmas to be an awkward period of the year. Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. But suddenly we’re all rushing out to buy presents and toys for people who don’t always need or want them. We know that a lot of our cheap goods come from people who are paid badly, and treated worse. But we still go out and buy them. With that in mind, I tried to write a story that would work on two levels: as a speculative story by itself, and as a metaphor for what we might discover, should we choose to look more closely at the world we live in. We might not like the answers we find.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel inspired by the world of e-sports. To put it simply: it is e-sports, if e-sports were magic. Or maybe it’s Pokémon gone wrong, in which letting semi-conscious creatures fight for entertainment is nastier than it sounds. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about this project at a later date! I’m also working on an online comic with my sister: https://www.narcissa.org/

 

“It Never Snows in Snowtown” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Interview: Matthew Hughes on “A Geas of the Purple School”

What was the inspiration for “A Geas of the Purple School” or what prompted you to write it?

Baldemar has been evolving, as my characters tend to do.  I wanted to put him in a new situation while at the same time pulling back to show more of the Dying Earthesque world in which he lives.  Comments from readers tell me they like visiting Old Earth and I’m happy to give them a new neighborhood to explore.

 

Matthew HughesAlthough Baldemar is no thief, he does sometimes have need to commit trespass or fight his way out of a jam.  How did you learn about the interesting details of roguery that make their way into your Archonate Universe stories?

By being a rogue, myself.  I am the white sheep of my family, which is largely populated by persons who have at least some passing familiarity with the criminal half-world.  Among close relatives, I can count incidences of arson, theft, fraud, receipt of stolen goods, and burglary.  Also, I use my imagination.

 

What was the most difficult aspect of this story to write, and what was the most fun?

None of it was difficult.  I listen to what the guy in the back of my head tells me then write it down.  The most fun was writing Baldemar under the power of the geas.  I sometimes enjoy treading on my characters’ dignity.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a final Baldemar novelette, “The Glooms” that deals with what happens when he “retires” after Thelerion gets his just reward in “The Sword of Destiny.”  That novelette, which first ran in Gardner Dozois’s anthology, The Book of Swords, is available for a free read on Curious Fictions:  https://curiousfictions.com/stories/2431-matthew-hughes-the-sword-of-destiny

I’d also like to plug my magical realism/historical novel, What The Wind Brings (Pulp Literature Press), which will be released in December in trade paperback and ebook editions.  It’s my magnum opus, about shipwrecked African slaves allying with indigenous peoples in mid-1500s coastal Ecuador to fight off Spanish colonial forces and win their freedom.

 

“A Geas of the Purple School” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Click on Mr. Hughes’s photo to visit his website.

Interview: Marie Vibbert on “Knit Three, Save Four”

Marie VibbertWhat was the inspiration for the story?

“Knit Three, Save Four” was written on something of a dare.  I was doing the Clarion Write-a-thon and writing a story every day, and so I was very open to prompts.  As I chatted about my writing with a friend, and was busily knitting, she said, “You need to do a story that incorporates knitting.  I know!  You could knit a spaceship!”

So that was my prompt.  “Knit a spaceship.”  I quickly came up with the idea of knitting a net around a spaceship to fix a structural problem, and a stowaway as the protagonist.  I bugged my friends for ideas on the structural problem and Geoff Landis and Darrin Bright were particularly helpful in suggesting other ways to fix the problem.  Heh heh!  So handy for that “fail three times then succeed” plot shape!

 

Was the story personal in any way?

Obviously, I knit.  I knit a lot.  I use knitting as a way to not feel guilty or like I’m wasting my life when I have to sit still, say on a train or in a lecture.  I was knitting when, on a Greyhound from New York City home to Cleveland, I talked to a young woman whose story inspired my main character’s.  She worked summers on Lake Michigan, selling snow cones on the beach, then did the same thing in Florida in the winters, and used her money to keep traveling.  It sounded like a hard but rewarding life.  I’ve always wanted to travel more but never had the ready cash… but of course I decided to spend most of my ready cash on a house, so here was a path untaken.

 

What was the most difficult part of the story to write?  What was the most fun?

The most difficult was actually the knitting.  I started out using a mesh pattern my sister had used to make excellent shopping bags, but it was too complicated to convey.  I had to rely heavily on my first readers to point out when my explanations were more confusing than helpful.

After my first draft, I decided to go Full Hard SF and make it near-future, no convenient artificial gravity.  That was surprisingly fun to do.  Constraints make stories more fun, and we forget that sometimes.

The funnest part was coming up with the characters.  Years ago, there was a game called Dice Land that had a character named Fat Robot Steve and I was in love with that name and had been daydreaming about writing a story about Fat Robot Steve for decades.  I decided the family was Philippine, so I renamed him Fat Robot Chen to have a more Asian feel.  “He looks like my buddy, if he were a robot, and fat,” was the explanation I dreamed up for Fat Robot Steve’s name when I first heard it.

 

What are you working on now?

I’ll be presenting a paper at the 90 Years of Analog conference in New York in December. It’s a statistical analysis of the prevalence of female names in tables of contents over the years.  I’m not an academic and so very nervous about it.

I’m putting together a poetry chapbook, tentatively titled “Rustbelt Robots.”  I feel all the imposter syndrome, all the time!

Otherwise, I’m shopping around short stories and revising two novels in the hopes that someone, someday might want to see them, and writing another novel because I am Always Writing A Novel.  Always.  Sorry.

 

“Knit Three, Save Four” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2010-19.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/kelly-link-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-september-october-2019/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Marie Vibbert’s website: http://www.marievibbert.com/

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