G42: The readers in our country know your work from the fantasy Baru Cormoran series, translated and published by one of our best SFF publishing house, Paladin, and now from the scifi Morrigan stories translated in our magazine, Galaxia 42. Both these (very different) narrative universes are presented from the perspective of strong women as main characters and both include LGBT relationships. Why? Because we don’t have enough such perspectives in SFF? Because a seemingly vulnerable woman has a more powerful impact when she grows strong enough to influence the entire country or even humanity? Or maybe a different reason?
SD: I’m very grateful to Paladin and to Galaxia for bringing my work to Romania. It’s an incredible honor when someone decides that your ideas are worth all the work and care involved in a translation.
A lot of people have asked me this question, and yeah, I think your answers are all part of it. We don’t have as many queer women in science fiction and fantasy as there are in real life. As a social scientist, that tells me there’s ‘non-random sampling’ at work—for whatever reason, protagonists are chosen by some schema which doesn’t map to the distribution of real people.
And yes, due to cultural associations (which are rooted in the way the brain links concepts together, using rates of coincidence and co-occurrence rather than logical similarity to decide whether ideas are connected), women are seen as more gentle and less powerful. Women in stories don’t get to make as many choices as men, don’t get to speak to each other as often as men. Often they’re defined by their relationships to men—how many books have titles like “The Cool Guy’s Daughter?” or “The Interesting Man’s Wife?”
And when women exist in stories, their choices are often linked to their sex by readers. ”She did this because she’s a woman” or ”the author made her do this as a way to say something about women”. Women aren’t allowed to just be normal characters.
So I think that is really my reason. I like women, I feel comfortable writing about women. It’s considered normal for women to write intense character studies of men—for example, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and hardly any of it is about women. Why shouldn’t men do the same, as long as they do it well? I’d like to keep writing women until they’re read as just characters, each taken on their own terms as individuals.
G42: We’ve read your fantasy in novels (Baru) and short stories and we’ve read your scifi (just) in short stories. There are two obvious differences I must ask you about. First: The writing style is different: a modern, fragmented one for scifi, a much more classical, fluent one in fantasy. Why? Did they better serve different auctorial purposes? Or is it because the readers are different, with different expectations?
SD: You’re a sharp reader! I can’t tell you how nice it is to have an interview done by someone who’s actually read the work. A lot of times bloggers and interviewers are too busy to do more than scan a summary.
The truth is that the style I use in these short stories comes very easily to me, but it’s kind of fragmented and choppy and hard to read, like a bag of broken glass. The style used in the Baru novels is meant to be simpler and more transparent. I don’t know if I really succeeded. I struggle with prose style a lot, and that involves focusing on the flaws in my writing.
Some of the difference also reflects the difference between the characters. Baru is more analytical and remote. Laporte is much more visceral and hallucinogenic, experiencing the world through images and moments of violence.
I wish I could make my writing more conversational and accessible. A lot of great writers, like Stephen King or Octavia Butler, have a way of writing which instantly connects with you. It makes you feel like you’re listening to a well-told story right away.
G42: And second: the fantasy Baru series is a big success and it includes three quite large novels. In scifi, though, you preferred short stories. Is it because you think long form is better for fantasy and short for scifi? Or simply because fantasy took all your writing time so far? And, since we’re here: will there be a Morrigan novel or series (I certainly hope so!)? Or a scifi one, in general?
SD: I’d love to do a Morrigan novel some day! I actually do have a science fiction novel coming out next year (if all goes well). It’s called Exordia, and it’s a very strange kind of alien invasion story. It’s based on my science fiction short story ”Anna Saves Them All”, with a number of important changes. A Kurdish woman who did something horrible as a child meets an equally horrifying alien one day, and she’s drawn to the alien by a mysterious bond.
In general, fantasy sells much better than science fiction. So if you’re going to go long, it makes business sense to go fantasy. Whereas almost no one reads short fiction at all (which makes every one of you readers very precious!), so it’s a better place to experiment and play.
Still, I have a lot of hope for Exordia. I think it’ll appeal to people who love technothrillers as well as people looking for difficult, philosophical science fiction.
G42: Despite the style differences, I felt the essence of the Baru and Morrigan stories to be very similar in their struggle against a very hostile world, and also a somewhat cynical, though not necessarily pessimistic, view of humanity. Is that a warning about our real world or just a writer’s choice for better impact?
SD: I think that both stories ultimately share a theme of individual human goodness being devoured and distorted by systems of power. Both women are fighting against a foreign conqueror, even if Laporte uses violence and Baru uses cunning. But both of them also struggle with the idea that their methods of fighting back are wrong and evil. Can you resist power without being changed by it? Does it take a monster to stop a monster?
I don’t think I’m cynical about the world. I believe we have to make our own meaning and morality in a universe without either. I strongly believe that it’s possible to make a good system of rules to govern our behavior. But I also believe that any system of rules must be vigilantly upheld and rebuilt, because in any game—any game at all, whether it’s a video game or the game of morality—there will always be players who look for loopholes and degenerate strategies. And the biggest loophole of all is the ability to gain enough power to rewrite the rules in your own favor. Power tends to run uphill, to concentrate itself in one place. We have to fight that tendency.
And I do think there’s grace in human connection, in people coming together out of compassion. Those moments of connection are just as important to me as any of the darkness or violence.
G42: After so many questions about Seth Dickinson the writer, here’s one about Seth Dickinson the reader: which genre writers and / or works did you enjoy greatly enough to make you want to start writing? Or did you have a different reason to start writing? And who / what do you enjoy reading now?
SD: As a teenager, the biggest influences on me by far were Timothy Zahn, Alastair Reynolds, Arthur Clarke, David Brin, and CJ Cherryh. I know I’m forgetting someone important! Probably another woman. That seems to be the way—a lot of older women writers have just fallen out of the conversation, for no reason at all. I’m sure I’ll remember one the moment I press send on this email…
Some great writers I love right now are the aforementioned Hilary Mantel, Yoon Ha Lee, Tade Thompson, Ann Leckie, Kathe Koja, Kameron Hurley, Thomas Ligotti, Nnedi Okorafor, Indrapramit Das. I always go back to Garth Nix’s Sabriel trilogy as a touchstone for simple but aesthetically effective fantasy—my own story „Worth of Crows” was inspired by Sabriel. Scott Westerfeld’s Risen Empire duology is some of the best and most underloved hard SF space opera I’ve ever read. Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Trilogy was very influential on the Baru novels. Again, I’m sure I’ll think of a dozen more. I really should keep a file with all the authors I think of to pull out at times like this.
G42: And lastly, a local question, to say so: in the Baru novels, the Aurdwynn region is obviously very similar to either the Balkans (right next to our country and with a common history) or the Caucasus (also quite close and with a less related, but very similar history). Which one was your inspiration? And… how come? None of these is either close to the US or with a familiar history for Americans.
SD: I’m glad you saw that! I try very hard to avoid ever writing a fantasy world that’s clearly a one-to-one match for part of Earth. All of history is highly specific and contingent. To create ‘fantasy Romania’ or ‘fantasy Eastern Europe’ would be an insult to the real place, because it would suggest that it is possible to recreate the place without also recreating all the unique (and highly unlikely) history and culture that shaped it.
However, like the Balkans and the Caucasus, Aurdwynn in the Baru novels is a place of constant turmoil and mixture. I tried to draw on elements of Welsh, Polish, Greek, and Indian history and culture for inspiration. I think that American culture tends to take a very shallow approach to Eastern Europe; in movies it’s always got kind of a blue filter, there are a bunch of AK-47s and gangsters in jumpsuits. I wouldn’t want to contribute to that with my own shallow imitation.
But I felt that fantasy really overlooked Eastern Europe as a source of inspiration. In a lot of ways, it was far more important historically than the West. There’s an entire glorious and tragic era waiting for its own Game of Thrones treatment. Even after the rise of England, Germany, France, Spain, and the other Western powers, history still pivoted on events in Eastern Europe. Even today, it’s one of the most complicated places in the world.
I can’t pretend to be an expert, but it’s something I’d really like to know more about. And I am always drawn to places I feel are underexplored in popular literature.
Thank you very much!