Gord Sellar (gordsellar.com) was born in Malawi, grew up in Saskatchewan, and currently lives and works as a professor of English Language & Culture in South Korea. Since attending Clarion West in 2006, his work has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Interzone, Clarkesworld, Subterranean, and The Year’s Best SF Vol. 26, among other venues, and in 2009 he was a nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This story is dedicated to his buddies named Mike–in Jeonju, Utah, and Toronto alike, for being very different kinds of men, each excellent in his own way.
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?
Gord Sellar: Hi Charles! No problem, it’s great to talk to you.
As for the appeal of science fiction, well, it’s a complex thing. It’s like asking, why do you like this or that kind of music? Though, with music, people tend to like all their lives the sort of thing (if not the same few things) they encountered and liked at an early age. That’s not quite true for books, at least in my case: I went through periods of reading fantasy (inspired by RPG gaming), horror, and wacko “nonfiction” (UFOs, Edgar Cayce, Jane Roberts as “Seth”, and assorted New Age books — ugh!) before I really, truly got into SF about halfway through my undergraduate studies at university. That’s a lot later than most SF fans and authors I know personally.
But there is an early formative experience that might kick in. I remember when I was quite young, maybe twelve or thirteen, that when I asked my father if he really, seriously believed that God existed, he didn’t really answer me one way or another. However, he handed me a paperback edition of Erich von Däniken’s Gods From Outer Space. It was a sequel to his bizarre and lunatic bestseller Chariots of the Gods, and dealt with pretty much the same bizarre theory of ancient-astronauts genetically engineering humans and building various ancient structures worldwide (as well as spawning all our religions).
For me, it was this whole new, crazy, what-if scenario. I remember everything I’d learned about human history and religion slipping away for a while — until I realized the theory was hogwash. (I was astounded to discover later on that H.P. Lovecraft had done the ancient astronaut thing long before, and far more entertainingly, if upon an equally ethnocentric foundation — and that, in fact, von Daniken had basically ripped off some Frenchmen who had ripped off Lovecraft himself. The fact that at that moment in my life, I was handed a second-generation ripoff of “The Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness probably sealed my fate…)
Anyway, maybe, on the deepest level, it’s that “Woah!” experience I had back then, where the consensus reality we live in suddenly plunged away, that makes SF appeal to me so strongly now. It feels good to have one’s mind blown, doesn’t it?
But there are other reasons, too, like how it’s the only literature I’ve found that’s really excited about science and our universe itself, that is really concerned with human nature and our collective future. Not a lot of other fiction is profoundly concerned with some of the key challenges we face now, like climate change and the toxification of the earth, like problems in how we’re fueling this amazing system we’ve set up, like how we might need to change a lot of what we take for granted to make it another century. Mind you, not all SF treats these things intelligently either — hence the motivation to assemble this anthology — but it seems to me most of the fiction I encounter that does do so, happens to be SF.
CT: What made you decide you wanted to write science fiction?
GS: Well, I should note that I was writing serious verse, primarily, at the time when I got into SF. I’d grown sick of high fantasy, had grown bored with horror — neither seemed to have much that talked about anything I felt relevant — and then a friend recommended a novel to me. David Brin’s Earth, it was. For all its problems, the book got my attention. Once I’d dug into some of the books Brin cited as inspiration — especially John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar — and then dug into other books people recommended me on the basis of those authors, I began thinking, “Hey, I could do this, too.” So I started writing short stories. I also joined a few SF-related mailing lists online, and the discussions there both impressed me in their nuance and intelligence, and interested me more deeply in SF. That was, oh, I’d say back in 1995 or so. A few years later, I ran across Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang and again, it blew my mind. That was about the time I really set verse aside and put my back into the task of writing SF.
CT: Does your background as a teacher (and someone well-traveled) influence your fiction?
GS: Well, teaching is one thing — I taught advanced composition courses for a few years during graduate school in Montreal and my classes were pretty diverse — but teaching in a foreign country, to groups of students who shared a distinct and alien cultural context (alien to me, I mean), is another. Not that Korea feels all that alien to me anymore, but it did at first, and to be honest that’s one of the reasons I chose to live abroad: in part, I thought it would be useful “field” research for the kind of cognitive estrangement that Darko Suvin had convinced me was so crucial in SF. I think culture shock is not so different from “future shock,” so it’s a handy experience for an SF author.
And it was. I’ve got a very different set of ideas about what are human universals, and how cultures work and change and propagate. That comes across in my work, I think, though I don’t harp on it. Because of the universals I see, I’m much more interested in sociobiology, though — the sense that evolution has formed our minds and thereby, in deep and powerful ways, constrained the types and shapes possible in human societies. I think this comes through a lot more in “Sarging Rasmussen” than in most of my other stories, actually. Also, the effect of living in Korea, among Koreans, has come across more just with a tendency to write about Korea and Koreans in stories, though I’m careful not to do too much of that, not only because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself but because one must be careful when depicting others’ cultures and societies, and so on.
There’s also the workaday stuff of teaching people in what is, for them, a foreign language. I don’t mean TEFL teaching, which is really a small part of the work I do. I teach about Western culture, about media, about literature, about how we structure written discourse in English, and it’s fascinating to be translating themes and issues across cultural contexts, making this stuff accessible to Korean students. Things like blackface minstrelsy, like the changing construction of femininity in American mass media, like how sarcasm works in English… many of these, in fact, are things that have actually affected Korean culture directly, but young people don’t know much about the background. The work of making it accessible isn’t so different from the work of taking some scientific or alien concept or futuristic culture and making it both accessible to a reader without gutting it of its alienness.
And of course, as painful as it can be to teach the inevitable essay composition courses, it really does force you to consolidate what you know about writing. Crisper sentences, better recoveries from tangents, smoother transitions: when you have to explain it to someone, and when you look at people trying to learn these things, it can help you master them yourself.
CT: Considering that your story talks about environmental causes, do you think humanity will eventually stop harming the environment, or will manipulation of our leaders be necessary?
GS: I honestly don’t know. I’d like to hope, but it seems to me that much of the world is mired in the business of with keeping itself housed and fed — understandably. Those concerns do trump the long term, when you’re living in poverty, under governments that simply don’t care. Far too much of our planet still lives that way…
While I am concerned about things like the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, it doesn’t surprise me, given human nature. People, and especially large organizations, seem unwilling to see a problem until a full-on crisis has occurred. This probably isn’t cultural, it’s likelier to be part of human nature. We evolved to worry about what we’ll eat today, and whether we have somewhere safe to sleep tonight, and whether this or that person might be a suitable ally or available mate. Our instincts often conflict with our long-term interests, something that is exacerbated by all those things that make our contemporary, urban lives so comfortable!
So the climate of a decade or two from now isn’t naturally on our mental radar, but neither is, say, the social cost of neglecting talent and whole groups of society (which allows sexism and racism to thrive in so many places) or the dangers of pollution. One has these groceries, one has to get them home, and the shop is offering plastic bags. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch just doesn’t enter the equation for most people, in most places. It does, for some, but it’s a small percentage of humanity, almost always the same percentage that lives in relative luxury, on the global scale.
I’m not sure so that “manipulation” of leaders will be feasible, let alone necessary; it seems to me that the real problem systemtic, especially one built into economics and law. Economics and the structure of law has led to most corporations “externalizing” whatever environmental costs they can, because corporations insufficiently recognize their dependency on a functional and healthy biosphere. It’s a haunting imagine: poison machines we’ve created, and haven’t got the commands to stop. It reminds me of that machine about the salt-making machine, the stop command for which some guy forgot ages ago.
So to be honest, what I imagine we’ll really need for the sustainable long term is a careful rethinking of the duties, responsibilities, and structure of corporations and shareholders — so that energy, time, and money get funneled at things that not only make money, but also solve our most pressing problems.
How to get that to happen? Our leaders will start taking the risk of calling the corporate world to heel only when we force them to do so. And right now, we seem too apathetic, too nervous about our jobs and short-term future, to look that far ahead, to push that hard collectively.
The UN, or my fictional WTO/UN, won’t do that. Citizens with the free time and energy and power will have to force governments worldwide to do that. (Which, by the way, may mean very uncomfortable consequences for the citizens of countries where wealth is less profound, a blow that, again, the globally rich will have to consider and work to minimize.)
It’s a lot of work, and a lot of trouble. Much more taxing than retreating into the world of entertainment. And I suspect it comes down to us to do it. So maybe we ourselves — the people, not their leaders — are the ones who need to be manipulated? This word, “manipulation,” has a bit of a bad rap. When we listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, we’re being manipulated, right? (John Cage complained bitterly of this.)
If you read 19th-century slave narratives, like those by Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, M
ary Prince, you find that they are also very manipulative texts, in a positive sense. They impress, they horrify, they break through the psychological shielding of readers to make people feel a passionate need to make things right — even centuries after the various emancipations of African slaves, and abolitions of slavery in different nations. (Though, shamefully, slavery still exists in our world.)
It’s a different struggle, now, of course, but the scale and the international scope — and the fact that so many relatively disempowered people made so much happen, like escaped slaves and women who’d not yet achieved universal sufferage — can and should inspire us.
So, really, some kinds of manipulation can be good for us, rouse us from our stupor and change our collective sense of what is possible and necessary. Fashion. Coolness. How can we tie the drive to be fashionable, or cool, to solutions for our problems? I’ve been thinking about this ever since Bruce Sterling started articulating the question on the Viridian mailing list years ago.
CT: Where did the concept of “sarging” come from? Do you think this is a feasible science, or something that’ll forever be in the realm of fiction?
GS: Actually, like some of the other terms in the story, “sarging” is a real term in use among (yes, real-life) men who call themselves “Pickup Artists” (PUAs) or The Seduction Community. Amog, sarging, mPUA, kiss-close, game: all those terms are made up by the PUAs to describe their strategies for meeting women. I think the term “sarging,” which most people would call “going out with the express purpose of approaching women,” is derived from the nickname of an early PUA.
A funny thing happened. I was working my way through Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash when I started to think about the role of techno-jargon in cyberpunk books, especially William Gibson’s and Stephenson’s work. It seemed to me that the geek-cool, geek-sexy angle depended on the use of this jargon as a kind of textual equivalent of the phallocarp, the Papuan/New Guinean equivalent of the Western codpiece, which whether one admits it or not has definite elements of sexual display built into it.
When, just around this time, I encountered Neil Strauss’s book about the PUA underworld, The Game. (I think most people who have heard about it at all know about it either because of this book, or that reality-TV show The Pickup Artist. Or that character Barney Stinson, on How I Met Your Mother, which is the best caricature of these guys I’ve ever seen.) It was to my great amusement that I found several parallels between the PUA subculture’s textual output and cyberpunk literature: both seemed to be dominated — both in content and consumption — by relatively young, socially-awkward (ie. nerdy) men; both seemed to regard technique and mastery as the ultimate cool; and both types of texts relied on a highly specialized, relatively impenetrable vocabulary of coinages, acronyms, gadgets, and technical terms derived from science and pseudoscience.
There’s another parallel, too, which is that both cyberpunk and PUA visions of the world focus on the power of the “hacker.” Cyberpunk texts idolize hacking computer systems, but the PUAs think of themselves as “sexual psychology hackers” of a sort, even if they wouldn’t use those exact words. If you want to sum up the PUA method, it’s simple: low status, nerdy guys can learn to be more successful with women (or at least a certain subset of women) by consciously modifying their self-presentation (physically and in their behaviour) to appear more like high-status men; the result of this “hacking” of supposedly hardwired structures in female sexual psychology, they claim, is that they become more attractive to women.
(Or, at least, some women. After reading Strauss, it’s amazing how easy it is to pick out his devotees, and watching them crash and burn makes for quite fascinating people-watching.)
With my evident interest in sociobiology, this was too good a parallel to pass up, so I figured I’d try to mash together the cyberpunks with the PUAs and see what came out the other end, while addressing some interesting things I noted in Strauss’s text. For example, how it barely at all addresses the deeply dysfunctional interactions between the men in the PUA subculture, except in a very dysfunctional way — “amogging.” Incidentally, my response is the fictional technique of “bro-ing,” which may well be the only unique futuristic PUA term I made up.
As for whether sarging or bro-ing is a feasible technbique for saving the world? I wouldn’t bet on it… but I do think that the groundwork for building solutions will be social, and will require a kind of social finesse that some of the more hardcore activists I’ve personally met have seemed to lack.
CT: What made you decide to contribute to the Shine anthology? Was it difficult coming up with an optimistic piece?
CS: I actually wrote the piece for submission to Shine. I’d sent Jetse a few stories during his tenure as e-slusher and editorial board member at Interzone, and when I read the challenge he’d posed to would-be contributors, I felt a little bit embarrassed. I’d mostly sent him stories that were very, very dark and in some ways quite pessimistic. I realized that he’s right, it’s easy to write (and think) in dystopian terms, and it’s harder to be both optimistic and realistic — or, inspiring, even — about the future.
And my story, by the way, posits that a group of nerdy guys who study core routines in order to psychologically manipulate women and political figures — and their feminist counterparts — are part of our best hope. It’s a funny kind of optimism, isn’t it, when you really look at it? The weird optimism of the really unlikely solution, maybe?
But once I had the idea, it wasn’t so tough to write. I had a blast working out the backstory, and it was so amusingly strange to read through various PUA texts and boards online, trying to pick up some of the bizarre way they narrate their, er, “adventures.”
CT: Do you think science fiction is capable of changing the world, either for better or for worse?
GS: Well, I’d like to think so. I fervently believe that ideas can change the world. SF has changed the world, in the past: it’s changed the scope of the imaginable, and how we think about the future — or, rather, it’s turned us into people who think about the future how we do, that is, as something potentially quite different, a foreign place altered by scientific and technological change.
Sometime last year, some part of the British government contacted Tony Smith, over at the Starship Sofa, to ask whether they could use his podcast of my story “Dhuluma No More” as part of a program for raising awareness of the possible side-effects of various responses to climate change. I haven’t heard back about whether they’re actually using it, but if so, I’d be happy in thinking the story has achieved something, even if it’s just a little heightened sensitivity to a potential future problem.
(There’s a word in Korean for the avoidance of an unfortunate occurrence, which is “dahaeng“; I like to imagine this story might help contribute to some possible dahaeng, though we’d never know about it if it did, would we?)
Still, we all know anecdotal stories of people inspired to study science or engineering because of a childhood love of SF. In the past, my cell phone-toting students have found it baffling to discover that Star Trek — a show that never enjoyed any popularity in Korea, and looks bizarre and laughable to them — helped inspire the mobile phone. But, well, living in a society where SF has not made the kind of inroads it has in the West, the effe
cts are much more palpable in their absence, or so I think. The way regular people think and talk about the future and technology seems to me to be fundamentally different, more tied up with the past and with the perpetuation of the present. Maybe that’s partly due to colonial history, but I think it also has to do with how SF hasn’t mutated the popular conception of the future here.
Now, whether SF now functions, or will continue to function, as an inspiration and gateway drug for bright youngsters depends, in part, on how well we manage to maintain the genre’s relevance. Judith Berman noted pretty devastatingly, a decade ago, that mainstream SF was graying along with the Baby Boomers who were its biggest audience, and in the decade following, several major authors (especially cyberpunks, for some reason) quit writing futuristic SF, though some have come back to it since.
As with everything, recognizing a problem usually indicates a possible solution. A number of authors have been working on YA books lately, I think in part to address this problem of audience evaporation — and not merely, I suspect, in the hope of hitting the jackpot with an SFnal Harry Potter, or to tap into the huge market those books have generated. I’ve been thinking about trying to do my bit to get young people hooked on SF, too, sooner or later, but I think there are a few other things I need to write first, before going there.
CT: Do you personally have an optimistic view of the world?
GS: “The world” is, obviously, a very big and complicated thing. I try to maintain an attitude that optimism of a measured, reasonable sort is the best policy, because the misery of pessimism won’t help anyway. If we’re doomed, it won’t help to frown our way into oblivion, will it? A teacher teaches a course knowing someone will likely plagiarize an assignment at some point, but he or she doesn’t give up on lecturing or reading homework altogether, right?
Still, I definitely temper my optimism with realism. Human nature isn’t going to change overnight, and while societies change rapidly, cultures respond to those changes relatively slowly. Unfortunately, there are many groups who are actively seeking to dismantle the few beacons of light we have in the world today — to dismantle education, to marginalize science, to confiscate our rights and freedoms, to promote war and violence, and to ignore a biosphere slipping towards a major crisis.
Crying about this won’t help, nor will giving them the planet without a struggle. Thankfully, idiocy is not the only game in town, nor, I am sure we can convince plenty of people, is it even a particularly interesting or sustainable one. I just hope we can convince enough of them soon.
CT: Anything else you want to plug?
GS: You mean forthcoming work? Well, at the moment I have something coming out in an issue of Subterranean edited by Jonathan Strahan sometime this spring, I think (a story also preoccupied with climate change, hope, and forgiveness), and another story (about Korean history and geomantic warfare) coming out in Carmelo Rafala’s The Immersion Book of SF, as far as I know, sometime later this year.
I’m trying to get some work done on a novel set in Southeast Asia, but like every semester, my academic duties have proven a little bit overwhelming and for the moment, I’m focusing on getting short work (and scholarly articles) revised and out the door, and trying to make inroads on getting some people interested in working on the translation of Korean SF stories into English. (Thus far an uphill battle, I’m afraid, but… I am hopeful!)