EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Madeline Ashby

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

Madeline Ashby can be found at her blog, escapingthetrunk.net, and @madelineashby on Twitter. She immigrated to Canada in 2006, where she joined Toronto’s Cecil Street Irregulars genre writing workshop. Since then, she has been published in Flurb, Nature, and Escape Pod. When not working on her novel, she’s a student of the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, a blogger for WorldChanging Canada and Frames Per Second Magazine, and a fan of anime and manga.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?

Madeline Ashby: Thank you for asking me! Hrrm. The appeal of science fiction. As in, why I would read an SF novel over a non-SF novel? Well, the SF novel isn’t going to talk down to me. It’s also probably going to be more socially conscious than most other novels — if it’s any good, that is. It will tell me not just the human story about compelling characters for whom I sprout feelings, but also inform me about the system that brought them into being within that particular time and space. Anybody can tell me a story about how hard it is to keep a marriage together in this day and age. It takes a different skill set to tell me a story about keeping a marriage together given special relativity, corporate censorship of Earth-bound communications, and the constant temptation of sentient dating sims.


CT: What made you decide to write science fiction?

MA: A lot of things. I was raised in a science fiction household. My dad had this copy of “To Sail Beyond the Sunset” under the bed, the one with Maureen doing her Birth of Venus thing on the cover. We also had the Dune and Foundation novels around, and we watched a lot of media SF on television. But I didn’t really want to write it until university, when I was studying it academically, and when I had already watched a lot of SF anime, which in my opinion is usually far better than live-action SF TV from the States or elsewhere. Plus, I knew it was an area where I could distinguish myself. There are throngs of women in their twenties writing about vampires and angels. But my thing is robots, and the humans who love them, right up until the moment their hearts are ripped from their chests.

CT: How did you end up getting your fiction published? In your website, you mention at how you originally were willing to put up your stories for free but they got picked up by publishers. How did this alter your plans?

MA: I wouldn’t say I ever had “plans.” My plans consisted of 1) sit down 2) write 3) finish 4) workshop 5) re-write 6) submit 7) open rejection letter. Any other plan would be little more than painful self-delusion. And actually, a lot of my stories are available for free or published for free. For example, FLURB is not a paying market. But my stories there earned the Rudy Rucker seal of approval, and that’s a lot more than most people get. And now, when I pitch a story to an editor, they say things like “We want to pay you for your work.”

If you really want to know about how my stories started being published, though, you just have to ask Cory Doctorow. He published my first big story in his and Holly Phillips’ edition of a Canadian anthology called Tesseracts. He’s an alumni of my workshop, and my fellow workshop members encouraged me to submit one of my stories to the anthology because they’d known him for years and had a good sense of what he might like. They were right, because the story made it in. That was three years ago. It was like getting my first job in the family business.

CT: You’re a contributor to WorldChanging Canada. What made you decide to work for that organization?

MA: Actually, I was in Japan trying to work on my first Master’s thesis when I noticed a lot of bright green tech, and a lot of great advertising around it, and I wrote to my friend Karl Schroeder (who also writes for WCC) and asked him if he thought that the editor, Mark Tovey, would like a piece on it. Mark responded enthusiastically, enjoyed the piece, and asked me to stay on. He’s a really fantastic editor to work with — prompt, concise, hands-on but not meddlesome — so I was happy to stay. WorldChanging itself is a great site, and I’ll often have ideas for posts before realizing that the current posts are just far cooler and more inspiring and that I should step up my game before offering anything.

CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world?

MA: Absolutely. I hold firm to Ursula K. LeGuin’s words: “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” I believe that culture, all culture, even and perhaps especially popular culture, is key to shaping and changing the reality of our daily lives. And culture is nothing without those exercises of imagination.

CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Was writing to Jetse’s specific theme difficult?

MA: I decided to submit to Shine because I really liked what Jetse had to say about optimistic SF, and I thought of his theme as a really meaty challenge. He was quite specific about what he wanted, and I decided that I would write something that directly addressed those wants. I decided that “Ishin” would be a test of my ability to write toward a prompt, a gauge of how good I might be at interpreting an editor’s wishes. So I was really pleased for two reasons when the story was accepted: first, there was the acceptance (yay!) and second, I had done exactly what I’d set out to do.

CT: “Ishin” packs a lot of vital elements: politics, technology, relationships, culture, etc. What research did you have to do and was reconciling all these factors difficult?

MA: The story was very difficult to write, but not for those reasons. Politics, technology and relationships all intersect in the culture wherein we live and breathe, so depicting them as intersecting is nothing more than acknowledging reality. I wanted to write a story about drones and botflies and so on after reading a post at Making Light about “ethical governor” software for proto-sapient predators. I started thinking about all the ways I would try to defeat such a thing, and then about the kind of people who would work with them, and how else they might be used. Then I realized that this would make a good story for Shine if I could just do it properly.

Doing it properly was really hard, though. It took a lot out of me. I worked on it for a long time, then had to stop just before the end, and finally I finished it a few months later. And in terms of research, I feel as though I should have done more. I ended up learning a lot, but not working in all the details I wanted to. I now know more about Afghan food than I ever would have learned through everyday experience, for example, but didn’t really have a chance to use that knowledge.

CT: Writers like Jetse de Vries and Paul Di Filippo (edit: interviewer’s mistake, it should be Peter Watts) have praised your writing and mentioned that you’re developing into a major writer. How do you feel about that? What are your plans for the future?

MA: I believe that you may be thinking of Peter Watts, not Paul Di Filippo. (Unless Paul really likes my work, in which case, thanks, Paul!) During a Starship Sofa podcast, Peter mentioned me to Paul, saying that he was really impressed with where I was going, and then promptly comparing me to a lima bean. (I’m very short.) Peter is a member of my workshop, and one of my closest friends. (We share a best friend, David Nickle.) So when he says that I’m coming along nicely, I’m very pleased and very proud, because it’s coming from both a jaw-droppingly good writer and from the guy who escorts me to the blood donation clinic in case I faint, again. I only hope that I can prove him right about my abilities.

As for my plans for the future, well, my agent has my novel in her clutches. The working title is “The von Neumann Sisters.” I really hope you’ll to be able to read it, someday. And obviously my future includes writing, because unless I sustain a catastrophic brain injury and my personality changes utterly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop doing this. Longer term, I’m a student of the Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. That means that I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to re-design business and communications models. I’d like to parlay that into foresight work like consulting. I’ve already done some consulting on an art installation that’s going up in October, and it was really rewarding. I suppose I could also try to go back for a Ph.D. as well, but my interests are so varied that it’s tough to know where I would fit in best.

CT: You’re also an anime and manga fan. How has this influenced your fiction?

MA: I think the people who read my work regularly would have a better answer for that than I do. Dave ribs me about it constantly. From my end, I can see a few things. I write about anime for Tor.com, and in my first post about “Cowboy Bebop” I mentioned that Shinichiro Watanabe subscribes to the “Exposition Is For Babies” school of SF. I’ve been accused of the same thing: when Karl was critiquing “Ishin,” he told me that I sometimes take “show, don’t tell” too far, and that he suspected the ability to “tell” had been beaten out of me with a stick. Otherwise, I think anime gave me standards for understating relationships. In the best anime and manga, there’s a lot of subtext and a lot of things that go unsaid. I feel that the same is true of real life: people dance around things all the time. Anime and manga just have a different way of depicting those silent but meaningful moments, because isolating a single image within a frame can sometimes be more powerful than any line of dialogue. Take the moment in “Cowboy Bebop” when the ice in Jet’s glass settles. It takes some viewer engagement to understand that moment for what it is, and solving that emotional mystery is part of what pulls the viewer along. The influence of anime on my work probably goes deeper than that, but these issues are a couple of things that leap to mind.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

MA: I suppose after talking so much about my stories, I should actually link to them: http://www.escapingthetrunk.net/?page_id=23.