INTERVIEW: Vonda N. McIntyre (Guest-Interview by Sue Lange)
Hugo and Nebula award-winning Vonda N. McIntyre has just launched an ebook version of her novel, Superluminal. The book, originally published in 1983 by Houghton Mifflin, is now being made available through BookViewCafe.com (BVC). As a fellow member of BVC, I like to keep up with all things going on there, so I tapped Vonda for an interview. I wanted to find out where she got her wonderful ideas for the book. We talked about Superluminal and her other work and science fiction in general. I’m very glad SF Signal is allowing us to let you in on the conversation.
Sue Lange: The title, Superluminal. Practically all of science fiction concerns faster-than-light travel, so why does your book get this audacious title?
Vonda N. McIntyre: I have no idea why nobody used the title before I did. You’re right, it would be an obvious choice for half the sf novels in the known universe.
Strangely enough, I wasn’t going to call it Superluminal. I was going to call it Aztecs, as it’s based on my novella “Aztecs.” But not too long before it was published, a very successful book came out called Aztec, by Gary Jennings, a much more well-known writer than I was or am. His novel was in fact about Aztecs, unlike mine, which was about people called “Aztecs” by people who didn’t know any better.
SL: That was an interesting slur in the book. Laenea was not too fond of being called an Aztec. Tell us why the pilots were called “Aztecs.”
VNM: Suffice it to say the book begins, “She gave up her heart quite willingly…”
SL: So how did this book end up being Superluminal?
VNM: I had come across the word “superluminal” in one of Julian May’s novels — I don’t think I’d run across it before — and she was cool with my using it for a title, so I did.
In an interesting coincidence, a similar thing happened with Dreamsnake. I was going to call it Snake, but a lot of people are phobic about snakes so Houghton Mifflin was sufficiently nervous about the title that they wanted me to change it. Recruiting the help of friends, I offered sixty million lousy titles (I’m not very good with titles) and one good one (Dreamsnake).
But nobody at HM liked any of them, and Dreamsnake was considered too snakely, and a mystery came out called Snake (also by a much more well-known writer than I was or am), so though HM could no longer say that a book called Snake couldn’t be published, they didn’t want me to call it Snake because of the possibility of confusion between a mystery novel set in South Africa and a science fiction novel set on post-Apocalyptic Earth. Go figger.
And they still thought Dreamsnake would cause snake-phobic people not to buy it, which, it seemed to me, would be kind of a good thing. Who would want to sell Dreamsnake to anybody who was phobic about snakes? But the suits didn’t see it that way.
So finally I wrote my editor (who I adored, and who had been doing her best to ride interference for me at the publisher) in despair and said something on the order of, “I can’t think of another title. Ursula Le Guin thinks it ought to be called Dreamsnake.”
And everybody shut up like a box and lo! the title was Dreamsnake.
SL: Never underestimate the power of Ursula’s name. To be honest, I thought you might have written Dreamsnake just to question people’s fear of snakes. In fact my favorite thing about the book is that the snakes are the good guys. So subversive! But getting back to Superluminal and the speed of light. Do you consider this a work of hard science fiction?
VNM: I have a low opinion of the whole “hard sf/soft sf” dichotomy. It’s a weird artificial hierarchy and what it’s usually used for is to dismiss or diminish some stories.
While Superluminal is usually classed as hard sf — it has rocket ships, what else could it be? — the science in Dreamsnake (for example) is more rigorous than the science in Superluminal — genetic engineering is possible, while (as far as we know so far) superluminal travel isn’t, never mind the multidimensional communication.
But since Superluminal has rocket ships and Dreamsnake has, well, snakes, Superluminal is usually classed as “hard sf” (unless the person classifying the book decides it doesn’t count because of the girl cooties), while Dreamsnake is often mistaken for fantasy.
It always puzzles me that Dreamsnake is mistaken for fantasy, by the way — there’s no magic in it. And it does in fact have rocket ships, though they’re always at a distance. Never even mind the alien zoo.
SL: I think that’s true about the artificial hierarchy of genre classification systems. I’m not even sure why we have to have genres at all. Well, there is the marketing angle which is why sf is further broken down into hard sf and other sub-genres. And we could argue all day about whether or not readers expect hard sf to include space travel. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what we think, since we’re the writers. Ours is the last opinion that counts. But exploring the Superluminal as hard sf idea further, I think the book is hard, but not because it includes FTL. I think it’s hard because it deals with FTL face-on. It asks the question how would humans fare traveling at FTL speeds? Instead of just including FTL, the story wonders about FTL. That’s something that science is supposed to do: wonder and ask questions.
VNM: A couple of summers ago I attended the first Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, which astronomer/sf writer Michael Brotherton puts on to teach writers how to put better astronomy in their stories. One of the reasons I wanted to go to the workshop was to wrap my brain around the distances and times of interstellar travel if you don’t have FTL.
They are pretty mind-bending. For example, we created a solar system with the radius of the classroom. Even with the Earth as a grain of sand, we couldn’t get Pluto’s orbit into the room.
And Alpha Centauri (the nearest star, ca. 4 light years distant), was in Cheyenne.
SL: Thanks for making me go look up a map of Wyoming to find out the distance we’re talking about here (40 miles).
VNM: Google is your friend. OK, well, considering the Google Bookscan Settlement, not so much.
SL: So after taking this class, did you wish you had taken it before you wrote Superluminal?
VNM: No; Superluminal was about the possibility of faster-than-light travel. There are a few references to the distances in space and the time it takes to traverse them, but those are subsidiary subjects.
The class might have changed a thing or two about “Little Faces,” though I was pretty careful about times and distances in that story. If I write a sequel to it, the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop will have considerable effect.
[Note: Little Faces was first published on scifiction.com and subsequently in The Year’s Best Science Fiction 23rd Annual Collection (2006) ed. Gardner Doizois. This story is available for a free read at: http://www.vondanmcintyre.com/McIntyre-LittleFaces.html]
SL: About the structure of Superluminal, you did a couple of things that felt unusual, unsettling almost. The first thing I noticed was that you started with a story that centered around Laenea and then about a quarter of the way through, you switched to a story that centered around Radu.
VNM: Sometimes characters take over for you, and unless you want to get into a wrestling contest with your subconscious, you go with it.
Also the reader has to know something about Laenea, or Radu’s experience of loss doesn’t mean very much.
SL: Another thing you did was not have the love interests get together at the end. Sort of a sad ending when you consider that.
VNM: Only if you consider the only possible happy ending to be that two of the characters end up together. All the main characters and some of the subsidiary characters see new possibilities opening up, which is a different kind of happy ending.
SL: Well, Radu and Laenea were madly in love and it’s hard to watch two people that are meant to be together, not get together.
VNM: It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was a matter of following the story. I don’t mean to say I didn’t make conscious decisions about what would happen in the book, but I didn’t set out to contravene conventional romance endings. Superluminal, as an SF novel, has other conventions it follows (the possibility of FTL — faster-than-light –travel, for one thing). A little bit of a different take on it, I like to think, but a fairly common SF idea nonetheless.
SL: What exactly is going on between Laenea and Radu that they can’t be near each other?
Usually being around pilots doesn’t bother regular people, but Radu isn’t a regular person, and he has a more extreme reaction to pilots than pilots have to regular people. It isn’t just Laenea he can’t be around; it’s any pilots. He just has the bad luck to have fallen in love with Laenea.
Every so often in human history, technology advances to a point where some people’s talents tie right in to working with that technology. Imagine if you were Isaac Newton but you’d been born in classical Rome where you had to manipulate numbers in Roman numerals. (Maybe he would have invented the 0 before it was imported from India via Arabia.) Consider folks who are good with computers. What if they’d been born a thousand years ago? Now probably they would have found something else do to or some way to innovate; but on the other hand, maybe not. (Consider the social pressure against geekly people up to the last couple of decades. I was a girl science geek in high school in the 1960s and it was no picnic.)
I’m not saying I think we’re evolving toward this sort of ability — evolution doesn’t evolve toward anything. But I do think that the flexibility of the human brain and the range of talents we have do sometimes mesh perfectly with the current technology, with the result that technology can evolve, and a lot faster than unassisted biological evolution. (Even though biological evolution can respond rather more quickly than we’ve thought up till recently.)
So maybe Radu is one of those sorts of people, who comes along at just the right moment for his talents to mesh with technology in a new way.
And then again maybe he’ll go off to live with the blue whales and nobody will ever hear from him again.
SL: A number of the characters in Superluminal are obsessed with finding out what travel at FTL speeds is like. Not knowing seems to create a free floating anxiety in them, and they feel empty. Which brings me around to the question, what was the inspiration for the requirement for your pilots — the Aztecs, as it were — to have an artificial heart that would enable them to travel at superluminal speeds?
VNM: It can’t have been wanting to use the line “She gave up her heart quite willingly. After the operation…” — could it?
SL: That was a provocative first line. And I didn’t realize when I read it how literal you were going to make it.
VNM: It’s a good example of what Samuel R. Delany calls “subjunctive tension” — whether what you say in an SF story is metaphorical or literal.
SL: Good ol’ Chip. I know what tension is, but subjunctive? Nevermind, I know, Google is my friend.
VNM: The subjunctive verb tense is the one used for possibility. “If I were going to become a diver…”
SL: So was wanting to use that provocative first line the real reason why you made them give up their hearts?
VNM: It was partly that, but partly that I had written two novels set in post-apocalyptic Earth, and I wanted to see if I could write a novel set in a future in which people were judged on the content of their characters rather than the color of their skin or their sex, without blowing everything up and starting over again.
Because I’d like there to be a future like that, and I’d like it to be a future in which the blowing up and starting over part doesn’t happen.
SL: Another aspect of the novel that I found intriguing was the extreme human genetic engineering that results in exciting adaptations. I’m talking about Orca and her people. How beautiful to be able to communicate with whales, killer whales no less, and to swim with them in their environment, living the life of a human but in the sea. How realistic is that scenario?
VNM: I think genetic engineering to a degree we don’t contemplate (outside fiction) will be possible in the future — in a nearer future than one might think. And I can imagine considering going through the process in order to be able to delve deeper into one’s area of research. After all, look at the grotesque lengths people will go to, to look sexier (or what they consider sexier) or younger. They can end up looking relatively alien.
SL: Yeah, you can get anybody to do anything when sex is involved. And you’re right. Some of the results look like mutations gone terribly wrong.
VNM: One ethical question is when in a person’s life the engineering happens. Medical ethics wrestles with the question of treating children, fetuses, or embryos, which obviously can’t give informed consent. The people in my books choose it or are born to people who have chosen it.
SL: And that was interesting because even though Orca’s family members were different genetically from humans of today, they still exhibit intergenerational tension, considering the strained relationship between Orca and her father. What were you trying to say with that?
VNM: They’re still human.
SL: They seemed so much more than human. They had a special relationship with the “cousins,” i.e. marine mammals. Did the human culture as well as the genetics have to change for people to get along in such a loving setting? You didn’t really mention that in the story, but I imagine people had to be very progressive to cultivate such relationships. What happened to the whaling industry, for instance?
VNM: The divers are technically at war with the United States and several other countries. (That’s why they live in Canada and why most of the on-Earth story is set on the floating spaceport.) You don’t hear too much about the history, since that isn’t what the book is about. The whaling industry no longer exists. Orca does acknowledge that there’s a certain tension between killer whales and blue whales, who have in the past been predator and prey.
S.L.: Orca also seemed to have something special, but her specialness was not as well defined as Radu’s. Why did she have such a deep desire to leave her aquatic life and go out into space. She was almost neurotic about it. What’s her story?
VNM: Why is anybody an adventurer? You might think that living in the sea would be adventure enough; why the desire to go into space? But you could ask the same question of, say, somebody who lived in the American colonies/the United States around the time of the Revolution. Why travel west into the wilderness? Some people just want to, and I’m not sure there’s any better answer than that.
SL: Very true. You either have that in you, or you don’t. Most of us don’t, that’s why we read and write Science Fiction instead of getting our pilot’s license, I suppose.
Vonda, thanks for talking to me about Superluminal and Dreamsnake and everything else. Where can we get these and other of your books?
VNM: Superluminal appears in its first electronic edition at Book View Café beginning on 13 September 2009. You can find it in the Novels section of my BVC bookshelf at http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Vonda-N.-McIntyre/.
Dreamsnake and The Moon and the Sun are also available in ebook form.
The books are available in hardcover (autographed or inscribed) at my Basement Full of Books web page — and to celebrate the premiere of Superluminal as an ebook, I’ll give a free copy of the ebook (several formats are available including .prc, .MOBI, .EPUB, and PDF) to anyone who buys a copy of the hardcover.
SL: A great offer, from a great author! See you around.
Filed under: Interviews
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