Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Interview: the Editors of Life Beyond Us

International science fiction about how life could evolve on other planets, plus short science essays? Yes please!  Lucky for us, the Life Beyond Us project fully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year!  Life Beyond Us in an anthology of science fiction about the possibilities of life on other planets and non-fiction essays on finding life elsewhere, edited by Julie Nováková of the European Astrobiology Institute  , Lucas K. Law of Laksa Media, and Aurora award winning author Susan Forest.   

Life Beyond Us will include short fiction by Julie E. Czerneda, Mary Robinette Kowal, Geoffrey A. Landis, Rich Larson, Lucie Lukačovičová, Premee Mohamed,Tomáš Petrásek, Arula Ratnakar, D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Bogi Takács, and more!  The kickstarter reached a number of their stretch goals, which means the editors are now neck deep in planning for the open submissions portion of the anthology.  If you're sitting on a short story about searching for (and maybe finding) life elsewhere in the universe, the submissions window opens soon!

The European Astrobiology Institute was founded in 2019 to connect astrobiology research with the space industry, and promote international collaboration and education.  Laksa Media is a Canadian publisher that focuses on issues-related general fiction and literary experimental fiction with a company mission to give back and pay it forward.   The editors of Life Beyond Us were kind enough to do a group interview with me, and take me behind the scenes of putting this anthology together,  running the kickstarter, and what their next steps are.  I could talk forever about how fascinating I find this entire project, but you don't want to hear me blather, so let's get to the interview!

the editors Susan Forest, Lucas K. Law, and Julie Nováková

NOAF: Lucas, Susan, and Julie, please introduce yourselves and tell us a little about yourself. How did the three of you meet?

Susan Forest: Lucas and I met while volunteering for our local writers’ convention, When Words Collide. When he determined he wanted to start up Laksa Media, he asked me to co-edit one of his first two publications, Strangers Among Us. It was such an amazing experience working with Lucas and Laksa, I signed on to co-edit the next books in his social causes anthology series. I met Julie through Lucas, when her story, “Screen in Silver, Love in Color, Mirror in Black And White,” appeared in our third anthology, Shades Within Us. This is a beautiful, nostalgic story exploring what it means to have courage when faced with the terrors of ethnic cleansing. I was thrilled when I heard I might have the chance to work with Lucas and Julie on Life Beyond Us.

Julie Nováková: I met Lucas and then Susan while contributing to their anthology Shades Within Us. If I remember correctly, “Screen in Silver, Love in Color, Mirror in Black and White” was my first solicited story in English, and I'm still grateful for the opportunity! When I was thinking about whom to contact about the Life Beyond Us project, Laksa Media immediately seemed a good choice, because they publish brilliant anthologies with an underlying mission each time - and in the current case, it's science literacy. One of the Life Beyond Us authors, Eric Choi, with whom I discussed the seed for an idea for an astrobiology-themed SF anthology already at the Dublin Worldcon, suggested Laksa Media too; the choice was clear! I'm happy that Lucas and Susan liked the idea and dived into the project with such enthusiasm and so many ideas.

We've never actually met in person with Lucas and Susan yet - which just shows you the advantages of the modern world! Before the internet, such collaboration would have been unbelievably more complicated and slower, if not next to impossible. I do hope we'll meet in person in the future, though, once it's reasonably safe to hold large international conventions again.

Lucas K. Law: My parents often say, “life is a journey of connected coincidences when one takes the first step and then another.” I started Laksa Media originally for other purposes (but it didn’t go anywhere). As an editor, I wanted to do a certain type of anthologies, but no publisher was interested in emotional and character-driven subject matters (such as mental health/mental illness, caregivers/caregiving, cultural identities, social discriminations, ageism). Too niche to sell. Too difficult to market. However, I don’t get discouraged so easily (my parents taught us to face challenges head on), and maybe a bit of naivety regarding publishing helps too. So, rejections from other publishers gave birth to Laksa Media as a publishing company and its guiding principles. It took four years before Laksa Media released its first title. By then, I knew Susan and her background enough that I was comfortable to ask her to co-edit Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts. So, one title leads to another. For the anthology Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders, I wanted a Central European perspective and I thought Julie would be a perfect choice for the theme (I had read her story in Clarkesworld a few years back).

I didn’t know the tidbit surrounding Eric Choi’s suggestion. What a coincidence! I am glad Julie and EAI contacted Laksa Media for Life Beyond Us. And here we are.

NOAF: The European Astrobiology Institute is a consortium of researchers, educators, scientists, and other outreach stakeholders. Why publish an anthology of fictional stories? Your organization is based around science fact, so why publish fiction at all?

JF: Fiction often inspires us to become interested in a topic and seek the facts. If you ask scientists, engineers, science communicators or artists working with science, you'll find that many were inspired by science fiction. It lit up their imagination, drove them to pursue the reality of what had seemed so exciting in fiction - and science is immensely exciting in both fiction and fact.

EAI's mission is not just to facilitate astrobiology research in Europe and beyond, but also support informed policy making, science communication, education and outreach. Apart from activities such as seminars, exhibitions or summer schools, it also means reaching out to a wider audience and trying to get science across the bridge in a fun way. Narrative and emotion work wonders with our brains; they can help us commit facts to long-term memory and make more connections.

Using science fiction in sci-comm is not particularly new, but the combination of SF stories and science essays is a more innovative approach within it.

NOAF: I was most intrigued to learn that the anthology will also include short non-fiction essays as well! What are the essays about? How did you get scientists involved with this project and what guidance (if any) did you provide to them about the types of essays you were looking for?

JF: Each essay accompanies a story and follows up on the scientific (but also social and ethical) themes present in it. We tried out this concept in a short e-book anthology of reprint SF and original essays, Strangest of All, released under Creative Commons last spring. There, though, all of the essays were written by myself (zero funds for a proof-of-concept, after all), and it's enriching to have more perspectives from the expertise as well as personal point of view. Some essayists are starting the work now, some will shortly; for accompanying some stories, we're yet to find the ideal person, and of course for the two stories from open submissions we'll be able to do this part later on. It's important that the essayist not only knows their field as a scientist, but can write and communicate science well, and if needed, also take it further, to its ethics or social implications. 

Science is extremely relevant for our society. We depend on it to a large extent, yet we often see dwindling interest or even anti-science movements. Astrobiology is a great field for increasing interest in STE(A)M and science literacy in general, because 1) it's so popular (who wouldn't want to learn if there's other life in the universe, perhaps even close to us?), and 2) it's very interdisciplinary and naturally joins fields as diverse as astrophysics, biochemistry and philosophy. It prompts us to make connections between fields (such as what effect a star's activity has on planet formation and evolution, and chances of life) and also provides the underlying fundamental questions that make most of us, not 'just' scientists, care about the involved fields. Of course, that also makes astrobiology prone to media misinterpretations or bubbles sometimes - but that's exactly what we can avoid by supporting science literacy and critical thinking.

Interior Illustrations

NOAF: The Life Beyond Us anthology was crowd funded through kickstarter and extra funding unlocked stretch goals such as translated international science fiction. Kickstarter is an emotional roller coaster! Why did you decide to go the kickstarter route? What did you learn along the way and what do the next few months look like for you?

JN: Since the project is so ambitious, it's also expensive - a huge book with pro-paid stories by award-winning authors and essays by scientists, with a beautiful cover and an illustrated edition… Waiting for a grant to cover all or most of the expenses might take a year, or possibly many years. We decided not to go that way and use Kickstarter instead. Though all of us had previous experience as backers, it was the first project any of us created. It took months of preparations beforehand, and still we were surprised by many things, such as much less initial media coverage despite the number of sent out press releases, contacted podcasts, pitched articles, etc.; that turned completely the opposite way near the end of the campaign, when multiple articles came out.

Another thing we didn't expect was such a huge popularity of the illustrated edition. In hindsight, it's completely understandable - it's just mesmerizingly beautiful! But we expected far more e-books and 'experience rewards' being selected, with fewer hardcovers and illustrated hardcovers. We learned . . . to improvise! No, really, especially as a first-timer, you might analyze dozens of other campaigns and still be very much surprised. All three of us worked hard on the kickstarter, and I'm glad our collective effort paid off and we were able to reach not just the already amazing translated SF and Brazilian SF stretch goals, but also open submissions. In truth, I had hopeful expectations for one stretch goal, more hope than actual expectation for two, and reaching all three just amazed me in the best possible way. The coming months are filled with backer surveys, story editing and organizing the open subs window, which is open from July 1 to August 20. The guidelines will be posted as a kickstarter update of Life Beyond Us shortly.

LKL: When Julie mentioned “Kickstarter” in mid-January 2021, I paused for quite a long while (alarm bell immediately set off). I was (I am still) in the middle of several year-long projects, and I knew the Kickstarter campaign would take at least a month of intensive monitoring and participation, plus more to come when it ended. Susan and I are also getting ready for the promotions and publicity of our next anthology (Seasons Between Us: Tales of Identities and Memories, Laksa Media, August 2021). Furthermore, crowdfunding has never been on Laksa Media’s schedule or agenda. But Julie assured me they have a team to support the Kickstarter campaign and they have been planning this for a while. (Julie and her team have been wonderful to work with. So are the authors. Having Susan and the Laksa Media team help tremendously.) It took more than a month before I agreed to take this project (and being an engineer, I have a soft spot for science). Laksa Media is extremely selective with its projects. Once committed, we are in it for a number of years. For example, Laksa Media recently signed with Canadian National Institute for the Blind to do an audiobook of Shades Within Us (an anthology project started in 2017). And, for the next few months, we are working on its Large Print version.

I believe Life Beyond Us needs a home because of its mission (education and science literacy), and crowdfunding allows both EAI and Laksa Media to bring it to life. The Kickstarter campaign has been definitely a roller-coaster ride (and this is in the midst of a “dead” computer and “dead” car during the campaign). So, the next step begins…

SF: As the others said, I had not been involved as a Kickstarter organizer in the past, but I had a recent experience as an author whose story would be included in a different Kickstarter project (Shapers of Worlds, Volume II) if it funded. So I passed on the lessons I learned to Lucas, hoping he and Julie could use some of the same strategies. I was blown away by all the beautiful artwork and web design, and the interviews Julie conducted with the authors, and the amazing rewards offered. Lucas did a hero’s job tracking down outlets where we could let people know about the Kickstarter, and I wrote a bunch of emails both to people I know in the writing world, and cold-emailing people Lucas had researched, hoping to spread the word. So, each of us brought different talents to the effort and--yes, I checked the numbers every day, wondering if we’d fund, then getting blown away by reaching all three stretch goals. Now, it’s time to roll up our sleeves, because the next phase of the work, choosing two more stories, is coming!

NOAF: Thank you so much Julie, Susan, and Lucas! I can't wait to see the anthology, I know it's going to be amazing!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.