Interview with Elizabeth Bear
Today’s guest is Elizabeth Bear, author of Machine which is new this month. Machine is the follow up Ancestral Night and takes place in the same White Space universe. I’ll be adding my review to the blog tommorrow. In the meantime, please welcome Elizabeth Bear!
Riley: Please tell us a little about yourself (something that can’t be found online).
Elizabeth: Well, having been online in one capacity or another since 1989, and having been a fairly prolific blogger for about ten or twelve years, I’m not sure there is much about me that isn’t online. But to give a high-altitude overview, I am a science fiction and fantasy writer who lives in a very old house in a small town in Western Massachusetts with my spouse, Scott Lynch, who is also a science fiction and fantasy writer. We have four cats and a medium-small horse and I am possibly the worst guitarist on the Eastern Seaboard of North America.
Riley: As a futurist, what are your concerns about the future? What are your hopes?
Elizabeth: My hope is that we manage to continue, no matter how slowly, improving quality of life and personal freedom and fulfillment for human beings, while protecting the existence and wellbeing of other creatures on this planet. That we’re not currently at some kind of apex of human achievement and happiness, despite how fashionable it is to predict the end of the world.
My concerns are probably the same concerns of everybody who has been paying attention: rising tides of fascism; global climate destabilization; megavolcanos… okay, I probably worry more about megavolcanos than most people, but worrying about megavolcanos is kind of my job.
Riley: In reading Ancestral Night, I found themes that apply to our lives today. The most obvious one to me is individual freedom vs. laws for the good of all. These days, I feel it is harder and harder for people to reconcile these ideas. Will we see more of this in Machine, or are there any current events or issues that we will see in the next book?
Elizabeth: Honestly, I think it’s probably not harder to reconcile. I think what’s going on is that people are more aware (speaking very broadly) that individual freedom is in tension with the good of everybody. Because of the massive enfranchisement of marginalized people provided by the internet, we can now hear voices from all over the world, and if we listen, we can learn from a diversity of perspectives rather than simply hearing the most mainstream ones.
When I was a kid, if the establishment said, “This law is good for everybody!” there wasn’t a lot of pressure to contradict that viewpoint unless you really went digging into alternative news sources and niche presses. Now, you can hear directly from people who do not find that a particular law is good for them.
Which does lend itself to the feeling that you can never make everybody happy, and you know what? That’s true. But you can also work out scales of unhappiness, and given how opinion in America has shifted, for example, on same-sex marriage over even my lifetime, it seems that a small majority of even privileged populations can be convinced by evidence and anecdote and personal experience to support social justice for minority populations when they can see the truth of things.
The closer we are to people who are not just like us, the more we care about their wellbeing. It kind of sucks that that’s what it takes to make people care, but we didn’t evolve for this and we have to learn to use our brains in nonintuitive ways to deal with the scope and breadth of modern society.
Ahem, sorry. Anyway…
Entirely accidentally, Machine deals with a life-threatening outbreak aboard a massive hospital in space, and the measures taken to contain it and find a solution. I guess that’s sort of a current event.
As for future books… thematically, we’re always writing about the world we live in. Science fiction is about the future, but it isn’t for the future. It’s for right now. My audience is alive and breathing in 2020.
As of this writing, I’m still in negotiations with my publishers about the next book… but I can tell you something that nobody else on the internet knows! If it happens (and it probably will happen!) it will be called The Folded Sky and it will be out in 2022.
Assuming we still have enough of a publishing industry to support quirky gay literary science fiction novels that are unlikely to become #1 New York Times bestsellers, of course!
Riley: I always appreciate a ship with a personality. If I see that the story has an AI ship, the book is going on my TBR. In Ancestral Night, you take the AI concept a bit further and give them citizen status, with all the privileges and responsibilities associated with it. What led to your vision of AIs?
Elizabeth: Citizen status, with a few drawbacks! The AIs in the White Space universe are indentured, after a fashion, because they are created owing society a debt. I’m not going to say that this has anything to do with the fact that it took me twenty-five years to pay off my student loans, but you know, influences happen whether we want them to or not!
I do expect that the implications of that to play out in a future book, if there are future books. (See above.)
I don’t think there’s a specific thing that led to AIs developing the way they did in the White Space books. I’ve written futures without strong artificial intelligence (Undertow) and with artificial intelligence run wild (Carnival and also the Jacob’s Ladder books). I’ve done a bunch of reading on A-life and how artificial intelligence problem solving works and differs from human problem solving. (AIs do the darndest things.)
Riley: What is the furthest you have travelled from Earth?
Elizabeth: I have not, alas, ever left Earth. I haven’t even made it out of either the Northern or Western hemispheres… yet.
Riley: Of the books you have published, do you have a favorite (and if so, why is that your favorite?)
Elizabeth: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, exactly, but the ones I had the most fun writing are probably the Stratford Man duology and Karen Memory. The Stratford Man because my friend Sarah Monette, aka Katherine Addison, was working on a Ph.D. thesis in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre while I wrote it and we spent a huge amount of time giggling about Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe in email. (This is more entertaining than it sounds.)
Karen Memory because it’s always a delight to write a character who runs towards the sound of (metaphorical or real) gunfire rather than away from it. You never have to work to get them into trouble. And I tend to be a fairly cautious person in my own life, so writing somebody who is like “IN WITH BOTH FEET” is a nice escape!
The book I am currently writing is always my least favorite, because it’s not done yet.
Riley: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books.
Elizabeth: Oh, we could be here all week.
Recently, I love C.L. Polk, Arkady Martine, Sarah Prineas, Amal El-Mohtar, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and the aforementioned Katherine Addison.
Going a little farther back, Max Gladstone, Nalo Hopkinson, and Charlie Jane Anders (and I guess I have to include that Scott Lynch guy!) have never disappointed me.
Historically, my all-time favorite books dating back to childhood are Watership Down (speaking of works whose thematic content seems very relevant again: it’s all about anti-fascism, but with bunnies) and The Last Unicorn. I’ve read the covers off several copies of each. I’m also a huge fan of Octavia Butler, Roger Zelazny, C.J. Cherryh, and Dick Francis.
This is all just off the top of my head, mind! Ask me tomorrow and get a different list.
Riley: Would you like to share a teaser from Machine?
“Does the shipmind still exist?” Tsosie asked. “How about the library?”
“There’s a library,” she said. “And there’s Central.”
“Central?” I asked, deciding not to remind Tsosie that I had been going to do the talking. I was a little distracted: without Sally to keep an eye on my pain levels and help coordinate my exo, I was still doing those tasks myself. Keeping abreast of it wasn’t a problem, but it used up a few cycles. “Who is Central?”
“Central,” Helen said, “isn’t a person.”
“You’ve been here alone?” I was beginning to understand why the whole ship was filled with bot toys. Helen must have been incredibly bored. I hoped she’d at least been programmed to be interested in astronomical data, because that was the only source of intellectual stimulation for parsecs.
“I’m not alone,” she said. “Here are the passengers.”
She pressed a metal palm to a pad beside an irising hatch. A big hatch: this must be one of the promised cargo bays. Sally’s map and my own sense of dead reckoning told me that we’d come up on the side of the spinning wheel. That made sense: cargo bays would serve as valuable radiation shielding, though this one seemed to be oriented away from the wheel’s direction of travel.
She stepped through and gestured us into the airlock with her. We went. Helen cycled the lock. The door in front of us came open. A pale light flooded past her, shimmering on the curve of her hip and thigh.
I peered over Helen’s shoulder. The hold was filled with rank after rank of caskets.
Riley: What else would you like to share about yourself or about Machine?
Elizabeth: I think the most salient thing about me right now is that I’m currently at work on the final book in the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy, which is titled The Origin of Storms and is a bit late because, you know, global meltdown of everything is somewhat distracting. And the most important thing I can add about Machine is that I hope if you read it, you like it.
Meet Doctor Jens.
She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.
But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.
Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.
Add Machine to your Goodreads shelf:
About Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.
She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.
Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, and has spoken on futurism at Google, MIT, DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Project, and the White House, among others.
She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch.
Some recent essays are available on Medium.com.
Find Elizabeth at: