Tuesday, June 12, 2012

INTERVIEW: Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire

We were at Nerds of a Feather love us some short fiction, and believe that many of the most daring attempts to push, alter and expand the boundaries of science and fantasy fiction are happening within the short fiction form. To that end, we continue our interview series with Djibril al-Ayad, editor of The Future Fire magazine and--in his spare time--a writer and academic historian. Along with publishing generally high quality fiction, The Future Fire seeks to expand the range of voices represented in SF/F, and, to use their own words, publish "dark science fiction and art with a social conscience, a political sensibility and of the highest quality." The G sits down with Djibril to discuss the these topics and more.

 What’s the background story for The Future Fire? How did it come about?

The Future Fire was originally founded by five friends scattered across the globe (California, Switzerland, England and Scotland), with the idea that it would encourage experimental fiction and media that avoids the restrictions of genre while doing what all good fiction and art does, which is reflect the philosophies, politics and agendas of the world around us. Over time the editors have come and gone—I am the only one of the original five currently working on the magazine—but we still have editors in three countries. While all of the ideas we started with still apply (we'd love to run experimental and multimedia or interactive fiction, for example), our focus now is on social-political speculative fiction with no restrictions of genre.

How does The Future Fire fit into the world of SF/F journals? What journals or magazines do you feel an affinity to? How is The Future Fire different from the mainstream journals?

I'm not sure what the "mainstream journals" you refer to are.

I mean the traditional magazines in SF/F, ones like Asimov's or F&SF that, consciously or unconsciously, speak with a sort of institutional voice within the genre.

Okay. Well, I don't know those magazines very well, I almost entirely read small press speculative fiction, so I I can't speak to that. But as regards our difference from the mainstream, I would rather say that we have a niche, that we cater for a particular flavour of political and inclusive fiction, and I think we're known for the very high quality of the fiction we publish (especially considering the low rates of payment a nonprofessional 'zine can offer).

Everyone has their niche, and some are more experimental and interesting than others. I don't think any magazine is completely unique, but all have their strengths and weaknesses, and the good ones are still learning and are prepared to change things as time goes on. Other magazines that I would like to think exist in the same ecosystem as we do would include Not One of Us, Sein und Werden, Crossed Genres, Expanded Horizons and International Speculative Fiction.

You’ve described The Future Fire as a home for “science fiction with a social conscience.” What range of material does that term encompass? How do you see science fiction fitting into the broader world of social consciousness and activism?

All fiction says something about the cultural milieu in which it is written, about the beliefs and assumptions of the author and the shared world-view of the audience. Our attitude is that we should make sure the assumptions and the culture espoused in our fiction are socially responsible ones. This can mean: stories that tell cautionary tales about runaway free-market capitalism, imperialism, prejudice, security theatre, state surveillance and environmental damage; or optimistic stories that show a world with more freedom, with better representation of repressed people including women, quiltbag, disabled, non-white or non-anglophone people etc. Of course you can also have political stories about how immigration is a threat to civilization, or healthcare leads to communism and totalitarianism, but we're not interested in telling those stories. We make a choice, as everyone does, and we have our opinions about what "social responsibility" means.

Do you a potential within science fiction to affect politics, or popular views of politics, beyond the confines of literature?

Speculative fiction may not be going to save the world, or change a lot of people's opinions, but of course all art is part of political discourse, and all discourse or communication is and should be political. I don't mind even if we're only preaching to the choir, because (as Ursula Le Guin said in an article for _Gobshite Quarterly_ 2003), "if you don't preach to the choir the choir won't keep singing. We need to hear each others' voices."

How about with regards "diversity?" I think this can sometimes be a problematic term, especially when it just acts as a code for “tokenism,” like someone saying: “what we need is a black guy or a woman” and thinking that solves the problem, as opposed to seeking out different and challenging perspectives, and being open to whatever, and whomever, you find at the end of the road. But there’s also the tangible issue of marginalization, and we probably both agree that, in science fiction and fantasy, some voices are more marginalized than others. Could you speak to this issue? Do you see things trending in a more inclusive direction, or are there still major barriers to non-traditional (i.e. non-straight/white/male/Anglophone) voices in SF/F?

I'm resistant to the idea--which I know you're not espousing--that actively striving for more diversity does or should end with tokenism...
That would suggest either that we should not aim for more diversity, which itself implies that inequality and marginalization are natural, deserved, and we're fine with it, or that the only way to redress an imbalance in the fiction you publish is to be more forgiving of quality of stories in the under-represented group so as to buy more of them. That's emphatically not the way to improve diversity in publishing. As an editor, your job is not just to sit at home and wait to see what stories come your way. Your job is to go out and find the fiction you want; advertize in the right places; join communities; attend conventions and conferences; actively read things you haven't read much of before.

When we noticed that only about one in six stories we published in the first ten or fifteen issues of TFF were by women, for example, I looked back and ascertained that about 1/6 stories submitted to us were also by women. So it wasn't a problem of our selectively preferring stories by men (or with male bylines attached); we buy about 1/25 stories submitted by either sex. I also don't believe that it's because women write less scifi, or write it less well (both of which are absurd and demonstrably false ideas). Our response was not to publish a higher proportion of stories with female bylines, but to try to increase our profile among women writers. (Ditto quiltbag, non-anglo, etc.) We targeted our promotional material better, approached women's writing groups and feminist communities, put out a call for a themed issue of feminist SF, and later another on queer SF, made it clear that we were interested in these issues and were a friendly venue for these authors. We still read and make decisions on stories anonymously, and I think publish the same proportion of stories regardless of sex or other demographics, but we receive a much more equitable selection of submissions these days. It's an ongoing campaign of course. There are probably areas we're failing in that haven't even occured to us yet.

I'm not sure I see the barriers coming down; speculative fiction still has along way to go, not only in better representation of women and minorities, but in being more inclusive of different literary voices, styles, genres, and whole cultures. For the "literature of the imaginary", Anglo-American dominated scifi is pretty monochrome.

Let’s talk a little bit about upcoming projects. I know you’ve got a new collection coming out soon, called Outlaw Bodies. Could you tell us a little more about this project? What was its inspiration and what has the response been so far? When and where will our readers be able to purchase copies?

Outlaw Bodies will be an anthology of stories that look at ways in which the human body can be changed, subverted, adapted, regulated, exploited and controlled, and present future societies in which people are punished or persecuted for taking advantage of cyberpunk or posthuman technologies (or for refusing to do so). We're interested in combining this underlying idea with trans, queer, feminist, disability and body integrity issues.

The idea was all Lori Selke's—both themed anthologies were suggested in response to a call for guest editors that we put out last year to reinvigorate the magazine a little bit. By the call for submissions about a month ago we had received about a hundred stories, and we're still in the process of whittling that down to the six-to-eight we're going to publish. When it comes out, some of the new stories will be published as a magazine issue, freely available online, as usual. There will also be a book version, containing some bonus materials not online, available to purchase in hardcopy and e-book formats from all the usual online bookselling venues. (Details to be confirmed, but I hope it will be available by the end of July.)

You also have a new project, called We See a Different Frontier, which seeks to “decolonize the frontier.” What do you mean by that?

The idea behind that phrase is that science fiction is a very colonial genre; themes like the "final frontier", discovering "new worlds", settling, military conquest and adventure are all very romantic to the Western mind, but if you look at them from the viewpoint of a colonized people, rather than the colonists, they look very different. This anthology, conceived and edited by Fábio Fernandes, will publish stories from outside the usual perspective. It will not tell romantic stories of adventure and conquest and colonization, at least not the way the Anglo-American genre recognizes, but it will present new voices: authors from colonized countries, narrators and protagonists whose native languages are not English, settings and concerns outside the Western European world. And we expect stories to do this without exoticizing or culturally appropriating the settings in question.

Lately there have been some influential people—Elizabeth Bear, Neal Stephenson, etc.—questioning whether SF has gotten “too dark,” but I’ve always felt that, at least in American SF, there’s a strain of naïve optimism about space exploration and colonization. Namely, that somehow things would just be better the next time humans settle the new places they find. But human history should give pause—and not just the age of European/North American colonialism, but pretty much any point at which technologically superior groups meet others; to add some more examples, we could look at the Mongols, Vikings, Mughals and Turks of the medieval period; or ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Khmers, if you go back farther. To what degree do you think humans, were we to spread beyond Earth, could transcend this historical trajectory, or are we bound by it?

On the one hand I agree with you that any science fiction that presents simple technological solutions to our political-economic woes is naïve in the extreme; to think that we can colonize the stars without having to face our colonial past, questions of who is conquering space, and for whom, is short-sighted. But then to a lot of people science fiction is escapist, and I suppose there's nothing wrong with a bit of optimism in with your escapism. (Except where it erases the experiences of the colonized, who are, after all, most of us.)

On the other hand, if we're looking far far into the future, I like to think that we don't have to repeat the problems of the past (so long as we're conscious enough of our history to learn from them). Yes, conflict and colonialism have made up a lot of our history, but history (the written record of human heritage) is only a very small part of our cultural—let alone biological—past. There have been cultural contacts throughout history which did not involve constant war. There may have been dozens of generations of peaceful coexistence between groups of humans moving about the prehistoric world. Certainly most of our primate relatives manage without constantly massacring and exploiting each other on a vast scale. And we *are* capable of learning from our history. I like to think that in hundreds of generations, by the time we are truly exploring the stars (not just scratching out a few corners of this solar system), we will have evolved into a potentially radically different culture.

We're talking science fiction, of course, so this could be an evolution for the better or for the worse. But it may be more different than we expect.

You were able to raise money for this project via crowdfunding site peerbackers. What was your experience like doing this? What kind of feedback did you get about the project from the experience?

The first thing we learned was how much people wanted to see this project work. We could have just gone ahead and put out a call for submissions three months ago, and we'd have had no idea that the science fiction world (or at least that slice of it that we know through listservs, Twitter and the magazine) were so desperate to see an anthology of this kind come about. People were incredibly generous, not only with their money but with their time and effort, helping to boost the signal, interviewing us on their sites, guest blogging for us, running round tables, donating signed books for giveaway draws, everything. It was very moving.

The other thing I learned was that we were too modest. We deliberately chose a crowd-funding site that did not have an "all or nothing" policy (where if you don't make your target, all the pledges are returned and you don't see a penny), because we weren't sure we would achieve $3000 in donations, and we wanted to do the project even with less. In the end, we outstripped our target by 50%; people pledged more than $4500 to make the project happen. It was incredible. I think if people think an idea is exciting enough, and you can generate lots of buzz and work hard at building your community for the duration of the fundraiser, you can raise a lot of money via this method.

One final question: lately at nerds-feather, we’ve started a “summer reading” series, where our contributors give us 6 books they plan to read over the summer. What are yours?

Okay, first I want to read several of the books from the sfftawards.com shortlist, so Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik; Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; Zero by Huang Fan. I've also just started Mohammed Dib's Qui se souvient de la mer (which is not translated into English, as far as I know), and at the top of my tottering to-be-read pile are Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial and Ekaterina Sedia's Heart of Iron.