EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF edited by Jetse de Vries.]

Aliette de Bodard is a French computer engineer who moonlights as a writer, with short fiction forthcoming or published in markets such as Asimov’s, Interzone and Realms of Fantasy. She’s a Campbell Award finalist and a Writers of the Future winner. Watch out for her debut novel, the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot.

Gareth L Powell is a regular contributor to Interzone. His stories have appeared all over the world and been translated into seven languages. His first collection, The Last Reef, was published by Elastic Press in 2008 and Pendragon will publish his first novel, Silversands, in 2010. He lives in the English West Country with his wife and daughters and can be found online at: www.garethlpowell.com.


Charles Tan: First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction?

Aliette de Bodard: For me, science fiction is about imagination–it’s not so much making accurate predictions of the future (because we know that past the 10 or 20-year mark, we can’t hope to be accurate), than it is about how we deal with the future. When such-and-such a technology is developed, how will we react? When such-and-such a culture forms, what will it look like? What will people think like, given such-and-such circumstances? For me, science fiction is a huge sandbox through which to view all possible variations of human (or not-quite human) nature.

Gareth L. Powell: I agree with Aliette. As a writer, science fiction gives you so much more to work with. It enables us to examine what it really means to be human, by placing characters in situations that never arise in the world we see around us today. It’s a vast playground, and its scope encompasses the lifetime of the universe: past, present and future.


CT: What made you decide to become science fiction writers?


ADB: I discovered science fiction when I was a teenager, and fell in love: it took me places I’d never been, from the claustrophobic New York of Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, to the weirdness of Time Tombs in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion–and showed me cultures and people I had never seen. I had this sense of a wide and wonderful world opening up (both with Science Fiction and with fantasy, for that matter). I didn’t actually think of becoming a writer until I found a how-to book by Orson Scott Card. This led me to realise that writing was a possible career–and not something reserved to a happy few (my typology of writers so far included mostly impressive polymaths like Victor Hugo). 
GLP: I was always going to be a science fiction writer. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t part of the plan. You have to write about things that interest you, and I’ve always been fascinated by space and science. I remember being excited about Apollo 18, and watching Star Trek with my grandparents in Somerset, on an old black and white television. I worked my way through the SF section at the local library. Then at the age of twelve or thirteen, my parents bought me a portable typewriter, and using one finger, I bashed out a short science fiction story called “A Long Way from Home”. And from that moment on, I knew more than anything else, that I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

CT: Are you optimistic about the future?
 
ADB: I should admit about now that I’m not a terribly optimistic person. I do believe in the ingenuity of the human race; but I’m forced to acknowledge as well that we have plumbed the depths of pretty much everything, especially in the 20th century. And, in the end, it seems to me that the people that come out ahead are those who choose war instead of peace, frantic progress instead of sustainable development, persecution instead of tolerance. I do think–and hope–that we can climb out of the hole we seem to have dug ourselves into, ecologically speaking (at the very least). But I think it would take a massive mindset change, and I’m not too sure we, as a group, will be able to pull it off in such a short timescale.
 
GLP:  All fiction is essentially about conflict, and as a writer, it’s easier to create conflict in a dystopian future. Yet, as a father, I have to believe that my daughters are inheriting a viable world in which to live. Yes, there are some major challenges ahead – such as climate change, scarcity of water and oil, and the rise of surveillance technology – but I feel optimistic that we’ll muddle through, somehow. As a species, we survived the last Ice Age. Travelling on foot, we spread out from Africa into Europe and Asia, and eventually into Australia and the Americas. We conquered the globe using little more than flint axes. We are natural survivors, and we have the brains and the technology to fix a lot of the problems that we’re currently facing – but will we have the individual and political will to implement and fund those fixes?
 

CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world (for better or for worse)? How?
 
GLP: A lot of people think science fiction writers try to predict the future in their stories. But accurately predicting the future is extremely difficult. Instead, what we try to do is to dream up plausible futures. We extrapolate sociological and technological trends and try to picture how they will affect the characters in our stories. We can imagine good futures and bad futures: utopias and dystopias. We can imagine futures where disease and hunger have been eradicated; and futures where repression and poverty are even more widespread than they are today. And as science fiction writers, it’s our job to show the world what it will be like to live in those futures.
 
ADB: Coming back to what I was just saying–I think science fiction is a very powerful tool, but not in the obvious way. The obvious side-effects of science fiction, at least the ones that get mentioned most often, are that science fiction “explains” science to us by introducing us to new, cutting-edge technologies; and that it can serve as an effective warning by showing us the consequences of disastrous choices. I think both are true, but that their impact is small: cutting-edge technologies are now found regularly in newspaper pages, and as for the warnings… to a certain extent, I think we’re glutted with those, with every day bringing yet another doomsday scenario because of global warning (I’m not dismissing global warming, which I think is a very important issue; but it is true that there’s a lot of theories bandied about it, not all of which are accurate). No, the real positive effect of science fiction, the way in which it can change the world, is that it takes us places: it shows us what it means to be human in different circumstances and different settings; and by doing so, it opens our minds–to other ways of life, to other ways of thinking. And that’s what, in the end, has a chance of changing us for the better. 
 

CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Did you find the criteria of near-future optimistic SF challenging?
 
ADB: Hum, it was more of an accident, really. Gareth wanted to write a collaborative story, and we swapped a few ideas back and forth before agreeing on the basic ideas behind “The Church of Accelerated Redemption”. When we finally finished the draft, Gareth posted on his blog that we’d done so–and was promptly contacted by Jetse, who was looking for stories for his anthology. We sent him the story; he liked it but had a few issues, and he made us rewrite stuff a couple of times before he accepted it for the anthology. 
For me, definitely, yes, near-future optimistic SF is challenging. I have no problems with near-future; but, as noted above, I have a lot of trouble with the optimism part of the equation. Luckily, Gareth was there to provide much of the enthusiasm and positive ideas the story needed (had I chosen to write this alone, it would probably have ended in a very different, and much bleaker, fashion). 
 
GLP: For me, “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” is basically, at heart, a love story. It’s about two people finding each other, despite being on opposite sides of the debate about artificial intelligence. And for me, that’s the key. If you’re writing about characters, about people and what makes them tick, then whether you set your story ten, twenty or fifty years into the future, you’ll still find people falling in love, trying to earn a living, screwing each other over, and hanging out with their friends… things they’ve been doing for hundreds of thousands of years. Those basic primate motivations of sex, power and death will still be there. It’s always been difficult to make accurate predictions for the near future, but that’s no reason to stop doing it. As long as the story’s based on more than simple prediction, and if it’s an entertaining tale with involving characters and a serious point to make, it’s worth writing. You may get some aspects
of the future wrong, but so what? As long as you give it your best shot, no-one can ask more of you than that.
 

CT: For “The Church of Accelerated Redemption,” what made you decide to collaborate on the story?
 
ADB: Well, we sort of went backwards at this: we decided to collaborate, because we’d chatted with each other, and thought it would be worth trying to write something together. “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” just turned out to be the story we agreed on: Gareth provided most of the basic plot, and the idea of AIs praying for people. I blocked in the basics about the characters, and came up with a lot of the minutiae of the Paris scenes, because it’s really easier to do this if you’ve lived in the city for a while (even though I had to Google stuff more often than I thought). 
 
GLP: I met Aliette for the first time at Orbital 2008, in a hotel bar that featured bridges over pools containing plastic fish. It was very surreal. But it was nice to meet her, and we stayed in touch. Then one day, as we were chatting online, one of us made the throwaway comment that we should try collaborating on something. And lo and behold, I just happened to have this idea for a story set in Paris, and I immediately knew it would be the perfect story to work on with Aliette; so I suggested it, and the ideas came tumbling out of us. We really sparked off each other. It was like we gave each other permission to let our imaginations run wild.
 

CT: What was the collaboration and editing process like?
 
ADB: For the first draft, we went something like this: one of us (I forget whom) wrote the beginning, then passed the story to the other, who wrote a bit and sent it back–and so on, until we’d reached the end of the story. We then went through successive edits in much the same way: one person would edit the manuscript as they saw fit, and pass it to the other. 
Jetse, in his persona of evil editor, also made us go through a number of rewrites, first to clarify the nature of the technologies behind AIs, and then to change a number of things (most notably the gender of the main character, which was a very interesting exercise: we ended up having to rewrite almost the whole story, because the responses of a woman to a number of situations are going to be vastly different from those of a man). 
 
GLP: We would take turns writing, passing the manuscript to-and-fro via email, reworking each other’s scenes, adding new stuff. It was a lot of fun, and each time I sent the updated story to Aliette, I could hardly wait to see what she’d send back in return.
 

CT: Do you believe that genuine artificial intelligence is possible in the future?
 
GLP: It’s a question of modeling. We already have computers that can model nuclear explosions, climate shifts, and the expansion of the early universe. At some point, I am sure we’ll have computers capable of modeling the workings of every molecule in a human brain.
 
ADB: I think it depends a lot on what you mean by artificial intelligence–if you mean something that can mimic human behaviour, I don’t think it’s going to happen, unless the program runs on a substrate that’s like the human brain. If you just mean something that has a “life” of its own (and it gets really complicated to define “life” in those circumstances), I don’t think it’s around the corner: what we have now are programs that have a set number of responses to a set number of situations. In a way, it’s analogous to some of what’s in the human brain; but on a much smaller and much more limited scale. We might see artificial intelligence if we changed the medium: for me, it’s not possible or very unlikely we’ll have an artificial intelligence running on today’s computers, even if the memory is larger or the processor is faster. However, if the basic computer is no longer electronic but quantum, or based on some other technology, it might be feasible. 
 

CT: Is there anything you’d like to plug?
 
ADB: My first novel, the Aztec fantasy/mystery Servant of the Underworld (with blood magic, jaguar spirits and fingernail-eating monsters) is now out from Angry Robot/HarperCollins. It’s probably as far from “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” as you can get, but it’s still loads of fun if you feel like trying it. 
 
GLP: My first novel is the science fiction thriller Silversands, featuring retired cops, digital ghosts, and corporate assassins. It’s out now from Pendragon Press. And if you’re lucky, you may still be able to get hold of a copy of my short story collection, The Last Reef and Other Stories, published by Elastic Press in 2008. You can find full details for both books on my website: www.garethlpowell.com.

2 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Gareth L. Powell & Aliette de Bodard”

  1. Aliette, I very much enjoyed the Acatl stories on your site.  I actually read and liked all the stories there, especially the life-like characters and non-Anglosaxon settings.  I got a kick out of the reviewer whining about the names in your novel being hard to remember… how do you spell parochial?  Related article: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears

  2. Aw, thanks, Athena! Glad you enjoyed them. On the long names, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that English is really unsuited to long names, and to most vowel groups (even “Eleuia” is counter-intuitive in English, whereas it’s pretty much par for the course in French). And that most English speakers don’t have a second language, so they end up having little tolerance for “odd” combinations. 

    (and thanks for the article! I have seen a number of hilarious linguistic faux-pas–though, come to think of it, the most egregious I can think of right now involved a translation from French to English with an embarrassing sexual connotation the writer obviously hadn’t considered…)

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