Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Interview with Malka Older

The Astounding-nominated author spoke with Nerds of a Feather about her writing process, her preferred readings, and our civilizational moment

Arturo Serrano: First of all, congratulations on the enthusiastic reception for The Mimicking of Known Successes. I must confess that the book's title biased me before I started reading, because romance stories don't typically have such a technical-sounding title. I suppose fans of hard SF don't mind, but did you worry at any moment that the title could scare away romance readers?

Malka Older: I honestly didn't think about it. I finished the book before without a title (the working title was "Rings and Rails," because that initial, vague, how would people live on a gas giant planet predated almost everything else in the book, except the mauzooleum, by literal years), and when I was reading through looking for one, that phrase jumped out at me. I was also in the mood for a slightly complex, enigmatic title, so it worked for me.

AS: In the creation of Mimicking, did you start by building the Victorian atmosphere and then come up with the planetary migration backstory, or did you first have the planetary migration in mind and then gave it the Victorian atmosphere? Or something else entirely?

MO: So as I said above, I had an idea many years ago about a gas giant encircled by rails to make it possible for people to live there, and that some of that space would be used as a kind of zoo. But it was really no more than that, a few sentences in a document. The other part of the book came when I was doing a lot of comfort reading during the early pandemic and thinking about how important that was for me and trying to analyze the elements of comfort reading for me and why I found them so appealing. "Sherlock Holmes retelling" is definitely one of those elements, and when I connected the two ideas it merged so well, and I went on developing from there.

AS: A core theme in Mimicking is the futility of trying to recreate an idealized prior state of affairs, and the consequent need for constant adaptation. What prompted your interest in exploring that idea?

MO: I find our relationship to the past fascinating—also our relationship to the future. When I was a kid, I once wrote a story called "If Memory Serves" about the way a hated despot was transformed into a revered leader over three generations of idealization. But this became particularly urgent to me, as a problematic, during those early days of the pandemic when I was thinking about and eventually writing this story. "Back to normal" was this almost talismanic thing, and it's a very understandable feeling in the midst of uncertainty and chaos and loss and suffering, to want to go back to what is known; but at the same time the "normal" was what allowed all that to happen in the first place, and those moments of disruption are also opportunities for improvement. It's a pretty common dynamic in disaster response, often coming from a place of authority: they'll give people money to rebuild but only to exactly what they had before—even if that leaves them open again to the same sort of damage the next time there's a flood or an earthquake, or leaves them in the same uncomfortable situation as before when it could have been improved. So I wanted to explore that in the book, hopefully in a complicated and nuanced way.

AS: You have frequently spoken of "narrative disorder" as a widespread condition of our century. Have you seen it evolve into different forms, compared to when you first proposed it?

MO: I don't think the disorder itself has evolved much—it's pretty broad and also it hasn't been that long since I defined it (probably most clearly in this essay). But of course the tropes and story patterns and so on have been evolving, almost continuously, if not necessarily in drastic ways (very sorry to see from summaries of recent movies the fridging trope for justifying extreme violence and transferring personal vulnerability to others arrrhhghahghghh). I'm sure, for example, that there is a whole set of conventions to various types of TikTok videos/reels, with expected beats that can be embraced or subverted for effect.

AS: Another frequent descriptor in your writings is "comemierdería." For the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, could you please explain its definition?

MO: "Comemierda" is an epithet that I heard a lot growing up, usually when my mom was driving. Literally it means "shit-eater" (derogatory), but like most such words there's a lot of connotation and shades of meaning. In Cuban, or at least my family's Cuban, "comemierda" is said with a tone of disgust and/or dismissiveness: it's someone who's careless, obstructive, or potentially actually evil and in a really annoying way, who does things that they really should know better than to do, who deserves scorn as well as irritation and anger. It has a very broad application, from minor irritation (cuts you off intentionally while driving) to major wrongdoing (using violence, oppression, and cronyism to maintain control over a country for decades, for example). Comemierdería, then, is the sort of stuff that comemierdas do. Like the appositive, it has a wide range; one of my uncles (qdep) once pronounced "La comemierdería es relativa"), it's relative, meaning that there's really bad comemierdería and less bad, and that might make the less bad seem better but it's still comemierdería. It's bullshit, it's bureaucracy designed to perpetrate evil, stupid rules and the people who use them, and lies and capitalism and communism and petty cruelty by those with power.

So it's a very useful word, but there's another reason that I employ it so much: it's pretty hard to find a personal epithet that doesn't rely on insulting a particular gender, sexual orientation, someone's parents or parentage, entirely blameless animal, or part of the body.

AS: On a related note: what's your position on writers from outside the Anglosphere using untranslated terms from their own cultures in books published in English?

MO: As my books probably attest, I'm totally in favor, both when reading and writing. As a reader, I love learning new words. I love learning them by context, which is probably how I got most of my vocabulary in various languages, and I don't mind looking them up if I have to. As a writer, I have a lot of languages floating around in my head, especially the words that stick and present themselves because they don't have adequate equivalents in other languages, and I want to make use of the best word in each situation, always while keeping the overall text comprehensible.

AS: In the Acknowledgments section of your novel Infomocracy, you describe it as "a global book." Beyond the simple fact that the novel has a protagonist who travels everywhere, and that it was written by an author who also travels everywhere, what do you think makes a global book?

MO: Oof, this question is making me feel like maybe it was too grandiose a claim. After all, there's a lot of globe out there, and a lot of variations within it. But for that book in particular, I was attempting to imagine a global system, something to supplant the fragmentation of our current geopolitics, our current attempts to solve problems that affect everyone on the planet, and so I was trying to present a wide variety of locations and societies to give at least a sense for that. Of course, it was also a way for me to enjoy the memories of some of the places I've been.

AS: Do you see yourself as a global writer, whatever that means?

MO: No, I definitely can't claim that. Like everyone, I come from a certain perspective, and while I've been lucky to have opportunities to expand it somewhat, all of that is still very specific—this influence at that point in my life, this place at that time in history, etc. And as tempting as it is to want something global—and I do think there's value in at least trying to look outside one's perspective of origin—at the same time I'm not sure that it's what we should necessarily be aiming for. When people say some piece of art is "universal," it always worries me a bit, because how can that be? How can any of us possibly speak to everyone, or represent everyone? I usually value specificity, rather than generality.

AS: The idea of centenals in Infomocracy and its sequels relies on a dissolution of the entire concept of nation states. What experiences shaped your skepticism toward nation states?

MO: Both the theory and the practice. When you read about the history of nation-states, and how it played into colonialism, and how, before external colonialism, it played into the sort of "local" colonialism of obscuring minority identities within the imperial nation (e.g., Welsh, Basque, Catalán, Calabrian, etc.), and look at the ways it has driven conflict throughout the last few centuries, it's very ugly. And in my own lived experience, I have worked in, lived in, or visited many countries with active separatist movements based on feeling like it was impossible to fit into the "nation" supposedly aligned with the "state" they had little choice but to belong to. And that's not surprising because it's hard to find a country that doesn't have a separatist movement (although granted some are more active than others).

To be clear, the concept of nation-states is not just countries as we know them today (although those are certainly problematic in a lot of ways on their own). It's the idea, which still underpins countries, that there is a "nation" of people, unified in some way, that belongs within the geographic boundaries and under the political aegis of a given state. This is, obviously, ridiculous in most if not all cases. There is no innate quality that makes all legal US citizens somehow "Americans," nothing that makes them in any way distinguishable from "Canadians" or "Botswanans" or "Bahrainians." It gets even more ridiculous when you factor in the statisticity of the concept: the idea that populations aren't constantly shifting, moving, changing, making families across borders, reimagining themselves.

AS: Do you wish Infomocracy's centenal system were implemented in real life, or do you have objections to the way it functions in your novels?

MO: I definitely want more innovation and experimentation in how governmental jurisdictions work. I would like everyone to have more flexibility in choosing what kind of government they live under; and I would like immigration to be freer, on principle and also because the international system recognizes that population is more important than territorial size and acts accordingly; and I would like the system to reflect that citizens are more fundamentally important to countries than countries are to people. And I would like lots of other things, like the responsibility to protect (R2P), and a less power-hierarchy-driven international organization, and generally humans being more important to everyone with power, and so on. I definitely do not think that the centenal system is the only way to get there, or even that it would guarantee all these things. I wrote it more as a way to point out that the way we organize government jurisdictions and citizenship is, if not exactly arbitrary (rather, path-dependent), certainly not inevitable.

AS: For your own reading, do you prefer science fiction that warns "let's not do this" or that offers "here's what we could do"?

MO: I tend to like inventive visions of what we could be doing, but that's me—absolutely no shade on anyone who likes to read, or write, other things! We need all sorts of approaches and moods and visions!

AS: What are you reading these days?

MO: I just finished Paladin's Faith, the latest in T. Kingfisher's incredible Paladin series (and actually reread the Clockwork Boys duology immediately afterwards, very worth it), and now I'm reading The Shamshine Blind by Paz Pardo, which is (so far at least) a very fun alt-history noir. Lately I've also really enjoyed Lavender House—another noir, although not alt-history—; a reread of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong, which held up rather better than I expected; Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall; Grave Expectations by Alice Bell; and Starter Villain by John Scalzi, all of which were very fun.

Thank you, Malka, for taking the time for this interview.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.