New Zealand fantasy writer Steffi Green interviews Charlie Jane Anders, author of the smash-hit novel All The Birds in the Sky, ahead of her appearances this weekend at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington.
Like all literary genres, fantasy and science fiction are replete with common tropes. We love stories of sword-fights and space trekking because they embody stories and characters that are comfortable and familiar, even when they venture into uncharted or imaginary worlds. There’s a formula, and many authors such as George RR Martin and Iain M Banks and Ekaterina Sedia find a great deal of success and make millions of people happy by sticking to that formula.
And then there are the books that exist in the between place – where genre conventions are tossed to the wayside, where macguffins and mechanical beasts and squidgy space monsters are strangely absent, where magic touches the world in curious and beautiful ways. The books that strive to surprise and delight us, while at the same time setting us up for a heart-wrenching climax.
Charlie Jane Anders wrote one of these books. All The Birds in the Sky was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. The story of a witch and a mad scientist who became friends and found themselves on different sides of a war went on to win best novel in the 2017 Nebula Awards, the 2017 Crawford Award, the 2017 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was a finalist for the same category in the 2017 Hugos.
Anders is speaking this weekend at various events in the NZ Festival in Wellington about fantastical literature, diversity, feminism and transgender issues, and the art of writing a good story. I caught up with her last week to talk about her work, geek culture, and – because we’re science fiction geeks – the apocalypse.
Can you tell me about the inspiration for All The Birds In The Sky? What was on your mind when you were writing it?
I started with this idea of a witch and a mad scientist. The first draft was whimsical and goofy and silly. It had a little bit of a Douglas Adams vibe. I’d go so far as to say the early attempts at writing the book were almost subconsciously Douglas Adams-inspired, with the science and magic sides always trying to one-up each other.
But the more I worked on it, the more I thought of it as a relationship story between these two people who were very different, but ended up having a lot in common. In Six Months, Three Days (Anders’ Hugo Award-winning short story), I’d created this romance story with speculative elements, and people liked it. I decided to move more in that direction. That was when the story started to click for me and become really interesting.
When you worked at io9 [a sci-fi blog under the Gawker mantle], part of the central vision of that site was that science fiction has come true. We live in a world where we’re constantly seeing things that would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago. Do you see our dependence on technology as an important discussion to be having in the world today?
We live in interesting times. On the one hand, we’re currently paying a hard price for our dependence on technology. Climate change and drought and floods and extinctions will disrupt the ecosystem we all need to live in ways we can’t even imagine.
On the other hand, I think it’s important to think about our relationship with technology. We’ve reached the point in the last half-century where most people depend on technologies they don’t understand or can’t control. Most people can’t take apart their computer or phone and put it back together again. Could you tell me how your phone works or make changes to its programming?
No. And I’ve worked in the tech industry.
Exactly. There’s been a movement to make technology more and more oblique to people. When we use an app or get something done using tech, we feel a sense of mastery, alongside this nagging awareness that the thing we’ve mastered is completely incomprehensible to us.
It’s sort of like magic, except that it’s more reliable than magic usually is.
The two schools can be both polar opposites, or two sides of the same coin. In discussing All the Birds in the Sky with other writer friends – particularly the early chapters, when Lawrence and Patricia are kids – we often came back to talking about whether we sit more in the “magic/nature/wilderness” camp with Patricia, or in the “science/technology/city” camp with Lawrence. What side do you come down on?
Personally, I really love cities. I grew up in the countryside, and I honestly got a bit bored. I do like nature. I live in San Francisco and there are amazing ecosystems across the city. Colourful parrots fly around, and there are raccoons in my neighbourhood that are constantly menacing people. I enjoy walking around in nature, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine living without technology – without a computer or phone on me at all times. I get withdrawal symptoms if I’m not constantly on the internet.
Do you think the end of the world is coming, and if it is, are you prepared?
I think the world ends all the time. The world is always ending, and we’re picking up and carrying on through era after era.
In terms of post-industrial society, I think we’re in a transitional period. I don’t know what we’re transitioning to, and that worries me. It could be towards something very dark and terrible, or it could be better, or just different in an interesting way. I think there’s a distinct possibility we’re creating the circumstances that would make it impossible for humans to live on this earth any longer. We need a wake-up call about our fecklessness in terms of how we treat our natural environment.
But I would definitely not be ready for the end of the world. If there was any kind of serious apocalyptic scenario, I would be the first to die. I’m not a survivalist. I don’t think I’d do well stomping around the wilderness, fighting over food.
You left io9 in 2016 to focus on full-time fiction writing, and I’ve just done the same thing – I just gave up a copywriting job at an awesome tech company to pen my novels.
Oh, congratulations! It’s so exciting when you reach that stage in your career.
Thanks. Yeah, it definitely is. Through the site and your writing, you’re in contact with lots of people we’d affectionately call “geeks”. How did the geeks you know inform aspects of your character Lawrence?
The thing I tried really hard to do with Lawrence was not to make him a nerd boy stereotype. The stuff that makes Lawrence really interesting on the page is his strong emotions and the fact he really cares about the people in his life. He wants to belong but he also wants to do right by the people he’s connected with, especially later in the book. I tried to make him into a sensitive, thoughtful person who embodies the best aspects of a lot of the geeks I’ve known, and also refuted some of the stereotype of geeks as completely antisocial or having reprobate social opinions. I’ve known all sorts of geeks with all sorts of personalities. I wanted Lawrence to be like them, with a really complex inner life.
Your style reminds me of the lyrical prose of Francesca Lia Block. I was wondering who your main influences are?
Oh, thank you. That’s such high praise – I’ve never been compared to her before, and I love the work of hers I’ve read.
Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut have a huge influence on my fiction in general, and particularly on the early drafts of All The Birds in The Sky. Doris Lessing is also another huge influence.
I’ve never read Lessing, but I remember hearing her Nobel lecture On Not Winning the Nobel Prize about the global inequality of opportunity and diversity in literature.
Exactly. These are topics close to my heart. Her books are amazing, and she was a real trailblazer in so many ways.
Diversity is an important theme in all your work. Why do you think it’s so important to include a diverse range of characters and experiences?
I think it’s vitally important we hear from all types of voices. Science fiction and fantasy are about imagining new worlds and inspiring people to try and build a better future. What we see in science fiction ends up being reflected in future technology. If those things are imagined with only a narrow subset of the human race in mind, it creates all sorts of problems down the road, and holds back our progress.
It’s really hard to write the last year or two, for sure. I know many writers who are stalled because of just how unstable and scary everything has been in the world political scene. I try to keep my head down and power through, but it’s really hard. I was just glancing at my computer a second ago and I saw a news alert about a school shooting and it feels like there are upsetting headlines every minute now. It’s hard to tear yourself away from that.
What are you working on now?
I just handed in my second adult novel to Tor, called The City In the Middle of the Night. It’s a science fiction novel that takes place on another planet humans colonised many years in the past. When the book is set, the human society is slowly breaking down and falling apart. One character learns a huge secret, and there are disastrous consequences and brave choices and all that good stuff. I’m excited for people to see this book.
Right now, I’m working on the first book in a young adult trilogy I sold to Tor. I’ll be writing this while I’m in New Zealand. Actually I was in NZ in 2009. My partner Annalee [Newitz, journalist and author] was invited to speak at Webstock, and we had such a wonderful time.
Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
Keep writing. Write all the time. Never stop. You don’t have to write every day if that’s not your speed, but keep writing and moving forward. Try to keep interrogating the meaning of what you’re writing, and write with intentionality so you end up with something that captures what you were trying to get out of yourself. But most importantly, keep going. Don’t let anybody stop you.
Charlie Jane Anders will be appearing at the NZ Festival in Wellington on Saturday, March 10, at 10am, and will also feature in a session the previous day at 1.15pm alongside authors Cory Doctorow and Intan Paramaditha ( @sihirperempuan ). Her novel All The Birds in the Sky (Titan, $22) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.