Virtual convention TorCon was held this past weekend, featuring a number of Tor authors additional special guests, including authors such as Christopher Paolini, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, and others.
On Sunday evening, Cory Doctorow (Attack Surface, Little Brother) and Nnedi Okorafor (Binti, Remote Control) wrapped up TorCon with a discussion about how they got started, how they look at and use technology and the the value of science fiction.
Den of Geek book editor Kayti Burt moderated the discussion, and after introducing both authors, she started off by asking the pair how they got their start with science fiction and why they ended up writing it.
Cory Doctorow: “I was raised by people who read genre. My dad was a comics kid, he learned English from comics and TV and movies when he came to Canada. He was a political radical, so he always radicalized the stories he told me. He would retell Conan stories, and he would recast Conan as a trio of gender-diverse, civil liberties activists called Harry, Larry, and Mary, who instead of deposing the evil king and installing themselves on the throne, would depose the king and install a worker’s cooperative.
I grew up in Toronto, which was Judith Merrill’s adopted hometown after she left Chicago, and among other things, she was the host of Doctor Who every week. So I would sit and watch with my dad and my mom, and she would come on and introduce every episode and talk about how where it sat in science fiction and at which potluck dinner the Futurians would come up with those ideas at. She was the writer in residence at a library she established, and starting in my school days when I was 9 or 10 years old, we started going down to that library, and she would just read manuscripts and help you understand them and make them better, and put you in writers’ groups. We also had the science fiction bookstore Bakka, where there were also lots of writers working, notably Tanya Huff, who also read my manuscripts. So I grew up in this very science fiction-y kind of town, and when Tanya quit to write full time, I got her job, Judy set me up with Karl Schroeder and Peter Watts, and so it was never really a question that I would end up writing and reading science fiction. It was the place and the time.
Nnedi Okorafor: For me it was more of an organic thing. The way that I started writing was rather traumatic—I have a whole memoir about that—but the first story that I wrote was an attempt at nonfiction, and I was writing about something that had happened in my childhood with my sisters in Nigeria. But when I wrote it, it read like fantasy. A lot of it has to do with the moment I can remember anything, I was a very imaginative child. The world was always just extremely vibrant, full of lots of things, not just what people acknowledged, but the things that were unacknowledged.
So when I started writing, these stories, that naturally came through. So I wasn’t thinking “okay, this is what I’m writing, I’m writing fantasy.” Science fiction came later for me. Early on when I first started writing, there wasn’t much speculative fiction, but I didn’t label myself as that. I just wrote these stories that came to me. There were these mystical aspects to it, and I kind of leaned into that. I started writing in undergrad program and my professors were always encouraging me—they were always saying “you’re such a great writer, you want to stay away from that weird fantasy stuff. Why do you do that? Take that out!” I wasn’t even doing it on purpose, and thank goodness I wasn’t doing it on purpose, because these were professors that I really respected, and they would have verbally beaten that out of me. But it was like just the way that I saw the world, in this very magical way.
And so my stories went in that direction, and after a certain point, I was enjoying these very imaginative stories so much, that enabled me to not listen to my professors in that regard, I did what I wanted with my stories, but after a certain point, I started learning into the fantastical aspects, and jumping the line from mysterious to flat-out fantasy. It really wasn’t about labels—it was about what kind of stories I wanted to tell, and this was how I saw the world.
The science fiction came later, with a trip to Nigeria. We took these epic trips with my family, and as I got older, I started noticing technology there, popping up in interesting ways, which got me thinking about the future, which led to science fiction. It was all very organic, and I kind of fell into it backwards and sideways.
On their processes
Kayti Burt: I’m curious about how your process works with stories today, with something like Remote Control, which has an amazing premise, about the adopted daughter of death. Is that something that started as an inherently speculative idea, or was it something that was maybe a character or a theme that isn’t necessarily SF?
NO: It started with the character herself, Sankofa. I’ve been writing about this particular character for a pretty long time, and she’s kind of existed in different ways and stories, but writing about her—it started with her. There was this ability that she had, and then I needed to find out what that ability was. That’s the thing with Remote Control, so you have this character that is the adopted daughter of death; she has this ability that kills things. It’s set in the future, and when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking “okay, this is science fiction, so I can’t write it this way, and this can’t exist.”
On creating technologies to use.
KB: Nnedi, I wonder if you have any reflections on how your stories engage with technology. How are you trying to incorporate technology in your stories, if it’s an intentional, conscious thing?
NO: One thing that is intentional is that I’m very interested in how technology is affected by culture. I can definitely say that the way that it moves, the way that it is used, the way it’s invented and how things become very prominent and how those are dictated by culture.
For example, in Remote Control—it’s not a spoiler—there’s a piece of technology called the “Gelly Telly”, and it’s basically a screen that stretches and you stick it to the wall, and you can stretch it to the point where it covers the entire wall. It’s a piece of gelatin, and it’s very durable.
The way that I came up with that idea was during a trip to Nigeria—not just to Nigeria, it was in the Imo state in the southeastern part of Nigeria—whenever we’d go to the house that my parents have there, a lot of times the roads would be heavily water damaged, and there’d be potholes, it would just be a really treacherous trip, bouncing all over the place. When you get to the village, you’d see these various homes that were built by various people of wealth. So you’d see these beautiful mansions in this rural area, and was always thinking you’d see these like huge flatscreen TVs, and all of this technology, and I’d wonder “how did they get that here? And how difficult must it have been to get that TV to this place,” and so that’s how I came up with this idea. Those kinds of things.
Aside from the fact that the people who create technology tend to create it for themselves; what’s most useful, most needed for their communities or themselves. And you take that idea and move around the world with it to different communities and how that creates different technologies if different people from around the world are involved. Which is not the case. A majority of cases of the most used technologies are from specific cases and other parts of the world to adapt and use and whatever. I like that question of what if a particular people creates their own technologies, what do they create? I like to play a lot with that idea.
On Science Fiction’s usefulness addressing societal problems.
KB: I want to ask a question from the audience: what do you see as the role of speculative fiction in presenting challenging issues and diverse world views for conversation and change?
NO: I think that one way that speculative fiction is good for addressing sensitive issues is that there’s something about it that it makes us able to revisit these very painful issues through a skewed lens. You’re seeing it in a new way, because it’s so weird or whatever way it’s being presented. It’s so different and strange, that you’re seeing it again with new eyes, and when you see it with new eyes, you can see more.
You know when you’ve seen something over and over and over again, it may be disturbing and traumatic, but you’re kind of desensitized to it, or reluctant to deal with it, because you’re like “uuugh, this again.” Speculative fiction can take those issues and make them new again, and by making them new you see them for what they are and also in a larger capacity from a different perspective. And I’m speaking very generally right now, but I think that’s one of the strengths of speculative fiction.
CD: I think that fiction—speculative fiction especially—can be a sort of diagnostic tool. When you want to solve something, you often simplify it, like when the doctor sticks a swab up your nose, sticks it into a petri dish and looks at it later, she’s not trying to build an accurate 1:1 scale model of your body, because it’s too complicated. She wants to build a little world in a jar in which one fact about your body is the whole world, whatever that gunk is that’s growing in your nasal tract.
Science fiction writers can reach into the world and pluck out a single piece of technology and build a world around it, not as an accurate model of the world, but of a usefully inaccurate model, a model that’s so streamlined that you can then take a little emotional flythrough of it to get a sense for what it might be like if things go on or if things are changed. And it gives us a vocabulary to think about change as it comes along, and it gives us a handy set of ideas to grab onto, like a toolkit for when change comes.
I think this is a double-edged sword. As pulp writers and science fiction writers don’t want to confine themselves to man-against-man or man-against nature, we like the plot-forward twofer, where it’s man-against-nature-against-man, where the tsunami blows your house over and your neighbors come over to eat you. That kind of story is like foundational beastiality of humans does make for great storytelling, but it’s not true. Right? That’s not actually what happens in crises. In crises, the refrigerator hum of petty grievance stops and leaves behind the silence to make you realize that you have more in common with your neighbors. It’s when people are are their best. Crises, because I think of so much cheap literature about crisis bringing out our inner beast, it prepares us for our neighbors to be beastial, and sets up this kind of dynamic where things go bad.
I think about the new Octavia Butler graphic novel that just came out, the Parable of the Sower and how those equip you to understand that the answer to beastiality is not an offensive posture, but a welcoming one. The road to recovery is about solidarity, not atomized, living death stuff and fighting for survival.
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Those are just some of the highlights—you can watch the full conversation here.