Karen Lord‘s new novel, The Galaxy Game hits bookstore shelves on January 6th. (Stay tuned for a review!) Her 2010 debut novel, Redemption in Indigo won the Mythopoeic Award, the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award, the Crawford Award, the Kitchies Golden Tentacle, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and her 2013 novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the Frank Collymore Literary Award, the RT Best Science Fiction novel, and was a Locus Awards finalist for best science fiction novel. Fans of the SF Signal family of podcasts also know Karen Lord from the SF Crossing the Gulf podcast with Karen Burnham.
Karen was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her new novel The Galaxy Game, the Crossing the Gulf podcast, some of her recent favorite books, and how she uses fiction to ask and answer thorny questions about cultural identity.
Andrea Johnson: Your new novel, The Galaxy Game, works perfectly well as a stand alone, but it is a sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. The main character of The Best of All Possible Worlds is Grace Delarua, and The Galaxy Game follows her nephew, Rafi. How did you come to choose Rafi as a protagonist for the new novel?
Karen Lord: I liked the idea of a generational hand-off. Massive events like galaxy-wide warfare need a historical span to unfold. The space is too huge for a swift and definitive resolution. It helps to have a younger character take the story a little further.
AJ: Rafi has telepathic abilities, and his culture views his untrained ability as dangerous. In fact, he attends a special school that “socializes the dangerously gifted”. If telepathy became part of the human condition, how do you think people would react to it? Would we welcome it? Fear it? Exploit it?
KL: All of the above! The charismatic telepaths would be treated like demigods, the sociopathic telepaths would be reviled as monsters, and the weak or naive telepaths would be used by some stronger individual or corporate entity. There may be some overlap between the first two categories.
AJ: The Galaxy Game has a lot of intertwined plot lines, and one of them is the future of the Sadiri people. They are experiencing a diaspora, and as they try to bring themselves back together they have to come to terms with the fact that the definitions of who is and who is not Sadiri have started to change (now to include people who have married into the culture and people born elsewhere who are “ta-Sadiri”, with genetic telepathic abilities). As a member of a minority culture, I completely related to the politically charged conversations on a Sadiri’s responsibilities to their culture. Can you speak more to this, regarding what they are going through, and the challenges they are facing?
KL: I’m glad this part spoke to you. It’s very much a Caribbean story that I’ve inserted there, recreating and reclaiming identity. It’s also an examination of identity from the point of view of those who reject what their group of origin has become. Is a group identity defined by a set of fixed and lofty ideals, or by the majority of its people and what those people actually do, ideals notwithstanding? The Sadiri on Cygnus Beta understand that they are on the verge of losing their good reputation, and they have to make some sort of stand, either for their home government or for their ideals.
AJ: I loved the Sadiri Mind-ships. I totally want to pet one! How did you develop the mind-ships, and just as importantly, how did you come up with how the mind-ships and their very talented pilots are able to do what they do?
KL: Every space opera needs a trick of some sort to deal with communications and transport under the burden of the light barrier. I opted for something more organic. They are based on the Portuguese man-of-war, a marine organism that resembles a jellyfish. It is actually several organisms combined into a single colony. You could pet a mindship, but not this. The sting is hellish. (I’ve been stung twice, trust me on this.) I gentled the concept of paralyzing tendrils into something more benign for the mindship. I also expanded the colony aspect into a collective higher intelligence capable of navigating spacetime. I imagine that the Sadiri first encountered mindships in their oceans, and some developed an almost symbiotic relationship, in effect becoming a temporary part of the mindship colony. The pilots came from that lineage.
AJ: The end of The Galaxy Game has a definite conclusion, but it feels like there is a lot more of this story to tell. Do you have plans to write more novels in this world?
KL: There are always more stories to tell!
AJ: I’ve enjoyed listening to you and Karen Burnham on the SF Crossing the Gulf podcast. How did you get involved with SF Crossing the Gulf? Do you have a favorite episode, or a least favorite?
KL: Karen Burnham invited me to do a podcast series with her. I’d already podcasted with her as a guest (she is the podcast pro), so I was honoured to be asked and very happy to say yes! My favourite is Episode 10: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck, followed very closely by Episodes. 12 and 12a: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I think we uncovered a lot of beautiful layers in both works.
I don’t have a least favourite exactly, but I do regret that during Ep. 17 “Single Bit Error” by Ken Liu and Distances by Vandana Singh, I had a ghastly wisdom-toothache that half-froze my jaw with pain and stopped me from waxing eloquent on the works.
AJ: Earlier this fall you were on a podcast with Tobias Buckell, where the two of you spoke about the uniqueness of Caribbean Science Fiction. For folks who haven’t heard that podcast, can you elaborate on what the term “Caribbean Science Fiction” means?
KL: That’s a really big question. The easy answer is that authors from the Caribbean, or of Caribbean descent, infuse ordinary sci-fi with themes, characters and situations that are specific to their experience and uncommon to the Western reader. The more complicated answer is that much of Caribbean literature contains speculative elements, and our genre boundaries tend to be fuzzy, or ignored completely, so what ‘sci-fi’ means to a Caribbean writer is even harder to pin down than what ‘Caribbean’ means to a Western publisher.
AJ: Who are some of your favorite writers?
KL: Ray Bradbury, especially stories like “The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit”, “Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed”, “Fever Dream”, “The Big Black and White Game” and so many more. He wrote humanity with such wisdom, good and evil.
Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis, for showing how a writer can evolve in both style and content over the course of a long, steadily-productive career. Lewis’s last novel Till We Have Faces is still my favourite book.
Karin Tidbeck and Kiini Ibura Salaam. They both write a beautiful, grand range from poetic simplicity to challenging complexity. They are drawing directly from the roots of their respective cultures. Never boring.
Right now I’m reading Tobias Buckell. I enjoy his work not only because of the Caribbean flavour of his writing style but also because he too has that passion to create at ever-higher standards.
AJ: Can you recommend some Speculative Fiction titles that you’ve enjoyed over the last year or so?
KL: I haven’t read as much over the past two years because of writing/editing, but I loved Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell and I’m on the third book of Jeff VanderMeer’s beautifully strange and mildly terrifying Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance).