Caitlín R. Kiernan is the author of nine novels, including The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, along with several volumes collecting her short fiction. She’s a five-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award, two-time nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award, and has been honored by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She also writes Alabaster for Dark Horse Comics. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her partner.
SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with several authors involved in the new anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and featuring stories asking: If the melt-down, flood, plague, the third World War, new Ice Age, Rapture, alien invasion, clamp-down, meteor, or something else entirely hit today, what would tomorrow look like? Some of the biggest names in YA and adult literature answer that very question in this short story anthology, each story exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake—whether set in the days after the change, or decades far in the future.
CHARLES TAN: Hi Caitlin! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For you, how would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?
CAITLIN R. KIERNAN: Wow. I’ve never before heard the term “Dyslit,” and I don’t think I’m comfortable with it. But I’m not comfortable with most genre categories. Or even the idea of genre. But, that said, writing about dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds doesn’t appeal to me. I write a lot of it, but it’s not because there’s an appeal. There are many reasons, but that’s not one of them. I’ll pick one at random and say there does seem to be a responsibility to write about what could happen, maybe, if humanity doesn’t take a little more care with its technological advances and population. Generally, I dislike science fiction as a predictive medium, but certain outcomes seem almost inevitable, given the present course of our civilization. Here, obviously, I’m referring to stories that focus on more realistic threats – ecological collapse, global warming and climate change, bioweapons, nuclear war, and so forth. So, yeah, I can say I feel a responsibility to write this sort of fiction, as a warning, and especially as a warning to YA readers. They’re inheriting a pretty messed up world, and they need to know where it might be headed, and how they may be able to avoid the very worst of the consequences of their predecessors’ actions. Maybe they’ll be smarter than us.
CRK: I always use unreliable narrators. But that’s a misleading answer, actually, because there can’t possibly be reliable human narrators. No one has that sort of memory. A conversation occurs yesterday, or last week, or a month ago, and readers are supposed to believe the narrator is recalling it verbatim? Memory, by its very nature, is unreliable, so narrators have to be. Plus, when we write, we can have countless reasons to purposely mislead a reader or ourselves. We may blend our worst fears with what actually occurred, and that’s what Cody does in this story. A lot of writers and readers don’t stop to think about the nature of narrators. Or, perhaps, they don’t want to think about it. So, all I did in Fake Plastic Trees was strip away the illusion, the pretense, that a narrator is reliable. Cody is telling her story in a way that has the most meaning to her. We’re seeing inside her head, into her private terrors and confusion and hope.
CT: What were the challenges in writing “Fake Plastic Trees”
CRK: Well, despite what I said above about “realistic” apocalypse, Eric Drexler’s grey-goo scenario popped into my head almost as soon as Ellen asked me to do a story for the anthology. It’s certainly not one of the more likely disasters that might befall humanity, but it’s what I wanted to do. The nanites are a symbol for our irresponsible use of technology, no matter how well meaning that usage might be. And what better symbol than plastic? Anyway, the greatest challenge in writing the story was trying to get the science right. As right as one can get such speculative science as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who can have only the barest understanding of the science in question. But, in my own head, I needed an understanding to which she wouldn’t have access. So, I found myself reading all sorts of works on nanotechnology, even though virtually none of it wound up in the story, and even though I occasionally played fast and loose with the science I was trying so hard to get right. In the end, it was more important to tell a good story, and create a believable character, than it was to present an entirely plausible calamity.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).