Challenging Destiny Challenging Destiny
New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Joan Slonczewski

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: What inspired you to write, and how did you get started writing?

JS: I have always written in response to deep feelings about where the world is headed. "The world" might be events in my family, or the state of our planet; usually both. My early books, Still Forms on Foxfield, A Door into Ocean, and The Wall Around Eden, were compelled by the specter of nuclear war, as well as by my need to communicate some of the wonderful possibilities for overcoming this threat, through the human possibilities for "active peace."

When I wrote A Door into Ocean, I really wanted to write about how the countries of Eastern Europe could free themselves from Soviet domination. But at the time, given the horrific political climate in this country, I felt no publisher would print it. Later, I received postcards from Czech students who found A Door into Ocean inspiring in their quest for freedom.

In Daughter of Elysium, you can see my concerns moving more toward the long-term, creeping dangers to our world, particularly the tragic loss of so many of our living ecosystems. But I never show easy answers. Nearly all the characters in this book think they are good environmentalists; yet each of their views are deficient in some way.

After I wrote Daughter, I lost a couple of years of writing following the unexpected illness and rehabilitation of my son. The Children Star continues the ecological issues, but also addresses the theme of a plague disease; really two plague diseases, the "simple" one at the beginning, and the tougher one at the end (not to give the ending away here.) The irony is that the "simple" one, the prion plague, can be cured simply by money just like the bad water that today kills nine out of ten people born on this planet. The tougher one -- like AIDS -- can't be cured by any amount of money.

My current book in progress, The Carrier, conflates the idea of microbial disease with the disease of addiction. Addiction and drugs interest me both biologically and personally. I see American society awash in a sea of conflicting urges -- "Say No" to bad, illegal drugs, but "Say Yes" to highly commercialized wonder drugs like Ritalin and Viagra. What will happen as the drugs become increasingly "intelligent," through biotech and cyber design? (You'll have to wait another year for this one.)

CD: Why do you write, and why do you write science fiction?

JS: The reason I write science fiction is because, oddly enough, it feels more real than non-science fiction. The world is changing so fast that non-science fiction is doomed to be historical fiction. (Does John Updike's Rabbit ever use a computer?) Only science fiction has a chance of getting some part of the curve right. In Still Forms, my characters all wore "credometers" to keep in touch with everybody else, buy groceries etc. I think this was one of the early, unrecognized predictions of "getting connected" through the Web.

I also like to use fiction to introduce people to the wonders of science outside the dry confines of a science lecture course. I especially like to combine themes of science and religion, and promote better understanding of how the two enrich each other.

CD: Are there particular writers you consider major influences on your writing?

JS: My first and most fundamental influence was Ursula LeGuin; first, because I identified with her as a woman, and felt that I, too, could write; and second, because one of her books, The Word for World is Forest, disappointed me so much in its ending, that I wanted to rewrite it my own way. Both Still Forms and A Door into Ocean had this in mind. Now readers tell me they wish A Door into Ocean had ended even more strongly; I guess they will have to go and write their own books!

The authors I have most used as models, in terms of style and development, are Heinlein and Herbert. I always admired Herbert's ability to keep readers reading, with all those characters and cultures interacting in Dune. I also admired his ecological imaginings, and accurate depiction of the mindset of so-called "planetary ecologists" (who were really terraformers!). My book in progress has a very bizarre take on planetary ecology, which my editor assures me has never been done before.

CD: What authors do you read these days?

JS: Growing up I used to read tons of science fiction, but today I read mostly science journals. From cloning Dolly to the physics of time travel, real science today is more thrilling than any fiction.

My favorite book in recent years was Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. The medieval parts, including the plague, were really well done. I also liked Red Mars, and I use it in teaching my course on Biology in Science Fiction.

Outside science fiction, my favorite author is Charles Dickens, because he combines a social conscience with such an outrageous sense of humor.

CD: Have you seen any good movies lately?

JS: Frankly, I hate movies because their subtle sexism and racism are so more repellent than in print; it's easier for me to forgive the printed page and enjoy the strengths of a text. I did however get past this enough to enjoy The Abyss; the effects and overall message were wonderful. (Too bad the director only sank lower since, IMHO.) I also found The Mission wonderful. The priests had a lot in common with characters in The Children Star, which was influenced by my children's experience in a Catholic school.

CD: Would you like to have a movie made of one of your books?

JS: Fortunately, it's unlikely I'll ever face this dilemma. How could they film A Door into Ocean? It would have to be X-rated. Most of my books have too much going on inside the head to be filmable.

CD: What do you do when you're not writing?

JS: Molecular biology experiments on E. coli bacteria, like the kind families get sick from. Teaching students at Kenyon College. Life with husband and two teen boys. Trying to help improve the public schools. Any more questions?

CD: Are you working on a new novel now?

JS: Yes (see above). For the first time ever, I actually have a contract to complete it (Tor Books, David Hartwell). It helps that for the coming year, I'll be on sabbatical at U. Maryland in Baltimore, so I'll have more time to write. (Still running experiments, but no teaching.)

CD: Are there any philosophical themes that you'd like to explore further in your work?

JS: I am most interested in the tension between philosophy and physiology of the brain. What does it mean to have a brain that consists of a molecular mechanism, yet contains a spirit of a thinking, feeling human being?

CD: Do you think machines will become sentient? If so, any idea when?

JS: A machine already is sentient. It's called the human brain. Other machines will become sentient, sooner or later. It's the inevitable result of evolution. I read somewhere that our largest AI machines approach the brainpower of a cockroach; from the standpoint of evolution, only a small fraction of Earth's lifetime separates us.

I realize this perspective may startle some people, but remember, I've spent a lifetime studying bacteria, and I tend to identify with their point of view.

Look at this from historical perspective. Why do people have machines? For the same reason people across history have had animals, slaves, and women: To do things people could not do, or wished to have done more efficiently, as extensions of their own bodies. Cows gave milk, slaves gave labor, women gave babies (future workers). But the trouble was, the better the animal/slave/woman, the higher quality of output, the more it/he/she tended to approach the nature of their master. Animals could only go so far, but slaves and women finally made their break. (In Western societies, in the past century, that is.) Is it a coincidence that slaves and women broke free during the age of machines?

Jane Goodall wants to retire research chimps on a pension. I'd like to see the same treatment for the IBM 360 I played on as a kid . . .

CD: What's your target audience?

JS: Ideally, my target audience would be any thinking being with at least a middle-school reading level. If Teramac wakes up, I would hope she/he would be interested.

I am especially interested in people who care about the universe and want to enjoy their experience of it and make a difference in it. We need to have more optimism that bright and fun-loving individuals can make a unique contribution.

CD: Where would you like to see the SF field go?

JS: I would like to see more and better science, especially biology. Nobody is taking seriously the real fantastic possibilities of molecular biology. Pick any gene or protein -- say, a protein for nerve development -- and imagine we could engineer it in different versions. Could we use it to engineer our brains in all different directions -- perhaps a brain that could only think in music, or a brain that sees twenty different primary colors? Would such people be able to communicate at all?

CD: Have you written any short stories besides "Microbe"? If not, why not?

JS: "Microbe" was my first and only short story so far, thanks to encouragement from Lois Bujold. I find it hard to write things short because I like to get to know characters (and people in real life) as well as possible, and I can't bear to let them go. The Children Star was about as short as I can generally make it. I love the Analog serial form, though; it's a good discipline to shape a narrative with four cliff-hangers and a resolution. Sort of like writing a sonata.

CD: Tell us about your religious background. How does it affect your writing?

JS: My experience with the Quakers permeates everything I write. I have been shaped by the Quaker example of listening and relating to that of God in everyone and every creature. In my books, wherever people resolve differences by intersecting seemingly irreconcilable views -- that comes directly out of what I've seen among Quakers.

More recently I have also been influenced by my children's experience in a Catholic school. (There were no Quaker schools to send them in our town in Ohio.) The Catholics impress me with their ideals of service and acceptance of mystery, and their ability to accept and forgive what cannot be understood. You can see a bit of Catholics in the Spirit Callers in The Children Star.

CD: What do you think of the portrayal of religion in science fiction?

JS: Religion in science fiction usually appears as an excuse for a crusade, or as an autocracy to overthrow. I would like to see more portrayal of the deep questing that many people do in their faith.

CD: How do you set out to talk across cultural or ideological boundaries? That is, how do you try to convey a message to those who might disagree?

JS: This question is hard to answer because I genuinely believe a number of contradictory views myself. These views generally come out in different characters, and I try to give them "equal time." For example, in Daughter of Elysium, one group of characters believes fetal genetic engineering is correct, but human/ape cross-breeding is wrong; whereas another group believes the opposite. Each position is equally plausible, though it can be shown to be inconsistent from the standpoint of molecular biology. Such inconsistencies are typical in our own society. For example, many people support abortion yet oppose capital punishment; whereas others oppose abortion yet support capital punishment. These contradictions, and their underlying assumptions, fascinate me.

CD: What have some of the responses been to your writing?

JS: I've had all kinds of responses. I was especially pleased to hear from the Czech students about A Door into Ocean; it made me feel I should keep on writing no matter what. Scientists have responded to the "lab politics" of Daughter of Elysium, which is most amusing if you've ever experienced "real research." I also enjoyed Barbara Summerhawk's response to Daughter of Elysium -- it feels incredibly good to help empower other women. More recently, my favorite response to The Children Star was from a bacteriologist at a water plant who really appreciated the microbes!

CD: In The Wall Around Eden, you depict a catastrophic nuclear war. Do you think we are headed for destruction as a civilization?

JS: I don't think it will happen as in The Wall around Eden, but from an environmental standpoint we are still slowly destroying ourselves. This is something all species eventually do. A typical lifespan of a species is about twenty million years; one would hope with all our intelligence we could do a little better.

But there are a lot of signs to hope for. It is fascinating that the most consumer-oriented society in the world (Americans) has actually become the most fanatic about environmentalism. I've had the experience of putting an envelope in the waste basket, and a student pulls it out and hands it back! Children in school are drilled by teachers who grew up in the Earth Day era. Furthermore, we've seen that lakes can be cleaned up and herds of animals restored (Buffalo steak, anyone?). I believe in hope; that is what my books are all about.

Last modified: August 16, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by Joan Slonczewski

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