Arkady Martine on Pen Names, Monarchies in SF, and the Trouble With Sequels

Arkady Martine (aka Dr. AnnaLinden Weller) is the author of the Hugo- and Nebula Award-nominated A Memory Called Empire and its forthcoming sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, due out in 2021. She’s also currently at work on a novel co-written with her wife, Vivian Shaw, author of the Greta Helsing novels.

When not writing fiction, Arkady also does work as a historian of the Byzantine Empire, a city planner, and a policy advisor for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. This week, the author dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked about the challenges of writing sequels, why there are so many monarchies in science fiction, AI factoids, and much more. Here are the highlights!

[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]

How different was the process of writing A Memory Called Empire compared to writing the sequel?

Sequels are hard! You have deadlines, and also you have to remember everything you ever named something. But mostly the difference for me was that A Desolation Called Peace has four POVs, instead of just one…

What else is different about writing a sequel?

Writing a sequel is always going to be more complicated than a first novel, I think. In part because you have set your rules already—but moreso because in a sequel, you are (if you have a traditional publishing contract) already on deadline from the moment you hand in the first book. You have to move faster. That is what changed my writing process—knowing I needed to write a whole complicated story as quickly as I could without losing quality.

What is your Teixcalaanli name and do you ever pick out names for people you know or for celebrities?

For me, Eleven Mercury. And yes, I totally do pick out names for people I know. (I named my agent, DongWon Song, Six Nasturtium. It suits him.)

What challenged you the most when developing the Teixcalaani Empire?

I think the most challenging thing was achieving the balance of genuine colonialist horror and equally-genuine cultural beauty and seductiveness. It was very important to me that nothing about Teixcalaan was cartoon evil-empire; that they genuinely believed in all of their universalist, citizen-vs.-barbarian nonsense; that they really thought that non-Teixcalaanlitzlim were slightly less than human—and that they made beautiful art, had amazing quality-of-life, lived in gorgeous places, had opportunities and desires that made sense.

That edge that real empires have. So that the atrocity hurts more, y’know? Because you love the knife, whether you want to or not.

And what was the most interesting part to develop?

The most interesting and fun part of developing the different cultures in the Teixcalaan universe was writing the chapter epigrams—making up a whole society’s worth of local media and historical writing was amazing.

What real world cultures inspired the Teixcalaan empire?

The real-world cultures which inspired Teixcalaan include: the Mexica, middle period Byzantium, modern America, and the Il-Khanate Mongols. As a … general flavor selection. Mostly the Mexica and Byzantium, though.

How has your background in history helped with writing fiction?

My background in history informs absolutely everything I write. I get most of my ideas from historical events and concepts and theory—A Memory Called Empire is deeply related to spending ten years thinking very seriously about medieval empires and borderlands. It’s all linked up. “History is the trade secret of science fiction,” to quote editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

As someone who has written a novel that involves a lot of court intrigue in a galactic monarchy, why do you think monarchies show up so much in science fiction?

There’s a very long answer to this which has to do a lot with how much Rome has influenced 20th century SF, as an initiating concept. I also think that SF is both—weirdly—reactionary (democracy is an EXPERIMENT! IT MIGHT NOT LAST!) and simultaneously not as socially forward-experimental as it has been physics/biology-experimental. Imagining new forms of government is hard, in short, and monarchies are sexy, maybe especially to people who live in Western democracies.

(Incidentally, all of this only applies to anglophone SF).

Personally, I wrote Teixcalaan the way I did without really spending a lot of time wondering why I wanted to—and then used my own realization of not-wanting-to-wonder as fuel for the questions of imperial seduction that run through the book.

A Memory Called Empire spoke very authentically when it came to moving within a culture that you want to be part of but know you will never be able to be accepted by. Is this something you drew from your own experiences?

In part, yes.

I’m Jewish-American, raised in NYC—very assimilated, but always, always aware of the conditional nature of that assimilation. So that’s part of what is personal in the making of A Memory Called Empire.

But I also relied enormously on the advice and experiences of my friends who come from cultures under colonization, which is a different kind of co-option than cultures under assimilation experience, when encountering empire. That’s not my story, but I tried to do it justice as best as I could.

Any advice for writers just starting out?

For people just starting out: write what you want, and ignore the market. To quote Elizabeth Bear, quoting … oh, hell, I don’t remember who said it first: there’s always room for excellence. If you’re good, the story will get seen. Market-chasing does no one any good.

Write what you like, even if the market seems un-interested or you’re scared you’re not ‘ready’ to write it.

Writing is hard and takes effort. Doing it without doing the version you want is not worth your time.

Is there anything you’re able to share with us about the book you’re writing with Vivian Shaw?

It’s a science fantasy political romance between a geologist and a local king, with weird geology, a collapsing interstellar empire, a resource-cursed economy, space malaria, and a semi-sentient crystal formation which may have ill intent. If you want to hear us read a bit from it, we’re doing an online salon with Erewhon Books this Thursday, May 14th.

What’s the story behind your pen name?

Back when I started publishing professionally—in 2013 or so—I was pretty convinced that (a) I was going to spend my life as a university professor; (b) writing queer, weird, lyrical science fiction might screw with my chances of getting tenure. So I picked a pseudonym to write under.

Neither (a) nor (b) turned out to be true. In my current (government employee) job I am entirely open about my work as a writer, and honestly I’ve gotten the most interesting opportunities both in academia and in policy work because I write science fiction.

But the name stuck, and I rather like it—though I also love my given name—so here we are.

Who are your biggest influences, besides C.J. Cherryh?

My other big influences are Elizabeth Bear, William Gibson, Stephen King, Guy Gavriel Kay, James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon, and John Le Carré, which … yes, I know that’s eclectic as all get-out.

Who are your favorite poets? Did any particularly inspire you when creating the Teixcalaanli poetry scene?

I’m an … adequate poet, occasionally a good one, and it was absolutely vital to me to not make the poetry in A Memory Called Empire something that would throw people out of the story.

I have a lot of favorite poets, but one of the ones that I kept returning to as inspiration in writing Teixcalaanli poetry is the anonymous Chinese poet Shih-shu. This poem is one of my favorites:

mountains and rivers: flowers of the Tao
but I, sadly, am a writer
no divine voice, talentless
yet, lend me a brush; I’m off and running

better an addiction to sunset clouds
to dispense with this sickness of words
let wooded springs purify this old heart
azure clouds burnish the sun red

What’s your favorite AI factoid?

My favorite (highly fictional and mostly implausible) AI is Hyacinthe Cohen, from Chris Moriarity’s Spin State books.

My favorite current AI factoid is just how absolutely bad they are at cocktail recipes. (add half ounce creme de cacao…)

which is to say, my current favorite AI factoid is that we haven’t invented AI yet, at all.

 

Head on over to r/Fantasy for the full AMA!

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