I’m happy to announce that Life Beyond Us, the anthology of astrobiology-themed SF stories accompanied by science essays we’re preparing at the European Astrobiology Institute and Laksa Media, has not only funded, but also reached the first two stretch goals already! There are still almost two days to go to potentially reach the third – an open submissions period for two slots in the anthology. Even without it, there are going to be 26 stories and 26 essays in the book. It’s going to be a big one – and a brilliant, inspiring and thought-provoking one, we hope!
Life Beyond Us is an anthology of astrobiology-themed original SF stories by 22 amazing authors of SF and accompanying essays by 22 scientists. The Kickstarter for the book is running right now, and I’ll be bringing you short interviews with each of the story authors. Today, please welcome Julie E. Czerneda!
Which branch of science fascinated you the most as a kid or teenager? And now?
When I was young, everything about biology and space was a passion. I dreamed of being the first biology in space, perhaps even deciphering an alien language. I went into university to do a joint biology/physics degree, and signed up for ground school, calculating that combination might get me into space. In grad studies, I continued my passion for how living things interact, researching chemical communication. And wrote SF in my spare time, so honestly? The dream kept going.
Can you hint at what’s your story going to be about?
Though this is preliminary, I enjoy examining first contact where the crucial piece of the puzzle is a difference in sensory perception.
Is there any place in the universe you’d love to see – where and why?
While I’ll always be deeply interested in space exploration, there’s still so much to see first hand on this planet, especially for a biologist, but also to see people as well.
What one technology today you can’t live without? Why?
“Can’t” would include modern medicine, food and energy production, shipping, etc. “won’t” is more within my grasp. We definitely shopped for our latest home based on where we could get high speed internet. To be connected these days is vital.
What do you see as the greatest scientific challenge of our time, and how can (or should) science fiction reflect that?
Climate change, more specially learning to live well on this planet, protecting the biodiversity on which all life depends. Science fiction abundantly addresses this and has for a long time. I do like work that pushes toward a sustainable, desirable future. I’ve no patience for apocalypse.
Why do you write science fiction?
Because the experiments and ideas that interest me most are either too difficult, too dangerous, or too immoral to actually conduct in real life. I wouldn’t, for example, destroy planets to illustrate the urgency of protecting life on this one. I can, and have, speculated on that imperative. I also can play with “what ifs” predicated on contacting other intelligences and build societies based on differences in biology. Which is great fun, believe me.
Julie E. Czerneda is a biologist and author of over 20 novels published by DAW Books: the Web Shifter’s Library series and other books. Her science fiction draws from and investigates the natural world, including us. Twitter: @julieczerneda
Life Beyond Us is an anthology of astrobiology-themed original SF stories by 22 amazing authors of SF and accompanying essays by 22 scientists. The Kickstarter for the book is running right now, and I’ll be bringing you short interviews with each of the story authors. Today, please welcome Premee Mohamed!
What comes to your mind first when you say “astrobiology”?
When I hear ‘astrobiology’ I’m afraid I think of science fiction before I think of science! I think of worlds where life forms have already been discovered and maybe studied or interacted with, not our current reality of ‘well we’ve received and analyzed signatures of some molecules that are useful for life on Earth that are coming from non-Earth places, but we don’t know what generated them or how.’ I also think of the books in my school library that had these models of life that might exist on other planets: ocean worlds, ice worlds, high-gravity worlds, and so on. I still think of those when I write sci-fi: how does where the action is set affect what happens, what choices are made, and what timelines things can happen on? How can we proceed using Earth life forms as a model, when life on other planets is very likely to not follow an Earth-like biological framework in many (or most!) respects? There’s so much we don’t know.
Can you hint at what’s your story going to be about?
Is ‘hubris’ a long enough answer? I think a good hint would be: When humanity eventually goes into space with the intent to settle in permanent habitats, I’m sure that, despite our greater scientific and technical knowledge, we will make the same mistakes that colonizers have made throughout history: misunderstanding, dismissing, and underestimating the life forms that have evolved before we got there.
Is there any place in the universe you’d love to see – where and why?
I’m actually researching lava lakes right now (of which Earth has disappointingly few) so my first thought was, I’d like to see 55 Cancri e! It’s a little ball of rock so close to its star that it’s entirely melted, and so would be lava on one side and rock on the other, and since it’s carbon-rich, there literally might be a layer of diamond inside it. (I don’t want to land there, I just want to look!) I also thought about some places closer to home – I’d love to see what’s under the clouds in Venus (without dying, I mean) and I want to do research on Europa and Enceladus and Mars. But it’s hard to resist the visual appeal of a flying lava sphere!
Why do you write science fiction?
I think when I set out to write science fiction, I’m trying to stretch out the scope of unintended consequences. All my favourite sci-fi (in which the sci-fi technology or premise forms part of the plot rather than just the setting) is about people creating something that they intend to be beneficial, and having it go wrong. I want to delve into what it means to ‘go wrong’ though. For who, when, how, under what conditions? What are the consequences? Are they evenly distributed? Is it a technology that only negatively affects poor people, or people in a certain area, or of a certain gender, or with children, or with certain jobs or disabilities or other circumstances? If it’s still going ‘right’ for some people, what are the conditions that makes that the case? And best of all, are there ways to correct what’s ‘going wrong’ and make the technology beneficial for everyone? How do people fight back, what do they use, how do they organize? Sci-fi is an unparalleled venue to explore how we’re dealing with the intersection of science and society now, and describe the possibilities for a future that could really exist.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. She is the author of novels Beneath the Rising (2020) and A Broken Darkness (2021), and novellas ‘These Lifeless Things’ (2021), ‘And What Can We Offer You Tonight’ (2021), and ‘The Annual Migration of Clouds’ (2021). Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues. Twitter: @premeesaurus
I’m happy to announce that on today’s big 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, we launched a Kickstarter for Life Beyond Us, an anthology of 22 original astrobiological stories by award-winning authors and essays by scientists active in astrobiology! So – please spread the word and help yourself and others enjoy the science-fictional and scientific visions of astonishing life on and beyond Earth!
Last year, I started interviewing authors from my astrobiological SF anthology Strangest of All developed for the European Astrobiology Institute, some on video and some through e-mail, and I’m bringing you these interviews. Next up is D.A. Xiaolin Spires, whose stories depict alien planets as well as strange apparitions, but regardless of genre are always sublime, intriguing and full of layers.
D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in Hawai’i, NY, Asia and elsewhere. Her work is published in Clarkesworld, Fireside, Analog, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, Terraform, Andromeda Spaceways (Year’s Best Issue), Star*Line, as well as anthologies such as Deep Signal, Strangest of All, Make Shift and Nowhereville. Select stories are available in German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Estonian and French translation. Twitter: @spireswriter.
Can you describe the genesis of your story “But, Still, I Smile”?
Thanks for asking about “But, Still, I Smile.” Sometimes I think that if life exists out there, it might not be in a form we recognize. I know, Julie, that you’ve written about this and think about this in your own work, especially most recently in your article in Clarkesworld, in which you ask, “when—if—we find alien life somewhere, are we going to recognize it?” I think the overarching question I had was along the same lines. If one supposes that life we encounter might not be a form we recognize… how, then, might first contact unfold?
I’m trying to recall the exact details of the genesis, but it honestly escapes me. I wrote this a few years back now and sometimes what remains is what feeling I associate with it, but not necessarily how it came to be.
It’s sometimes difficult for me to go back to think about how I came up with something. Usually, it’s an image or concept that gets lodged in the head.
Okay, I’m looking through my notes now and for this one, I wrote “machinery come alive” and “self-propelling doomsday planet.” These notes are jogging some memory of the story creation process! I think for me, the inspiration was actually from AI and the paperclip maximizing story. I remember at the time I was listening to podcasts about AI, notions of superintelligence and the prospect or possibility of the singularity. In this case, I substituted AI with aliens (or possibly aliens with technology that performed like these hypothetical AI). What if aliens had different values from us? For example, what if these aliens had a goal or function of propagating in a way that would be not only worthless to but incompatible with our own way of life? How would that look like?
I’ve also been considering the tension between anthropocentric forms of thought and multispecies ways of thinking; if we celebrate life and if life looks very different than our own, then how do these competing values play out? Should we assume that individuals would want a human notion of “what’s best (for us)” to prevail? Or can we imagine a human who would want to cultivate life, even alien life, even if it competes with our species’ own interest (or if there is one interest that can be defined for the species)? If this human wants so so badly to make life and has the chance, maybe it doesn’t matter what the life looks like. Maybe it’s just that goal achieved that counts for this person. Maybe this goal is just to be a parent or creator and to give birth, in a way, and at any cost—and still find this birth not just beautiful but sublime.
There must have been more going on in my head at the time, different thoughts swirling about, but I think that just about captures the main gist of the kinds of umbrella questions I was interested in tackling in the story when I set out to write it. I also wanted to paint a portrait of a very driven female protagonist and have this point of view highlighted—and to show that outward motivations might not reflect inward incentives.
In some of your stories, you tackle environmental problems. Do you think SF can change the way we perceive them and act upon that, and how? Are there any books or short pieces that, for you personally, embody the type of story that might do this?
I certainly SF has a role to play in how we perceive, understand and reflect upon the environment. The environment is our surroundings; our home more broadly, as well as the home to our various neighbors (flora/fauna/microbes, etc.) inhabiting the same space. It’s more than just a space and site; I think it’s something unto itself—the environment has its own system and mechanism. It can be viewed in multiple ways: as resource, as system, as habitat, as ‘alive’, as vulnerable worth protecting, as resilient but susceptible, as value worth extracting… the list goes on. I think disregarding any of these functions and qualities undermines the entirety of what the environment means to us as a species, more broadly.
In terms of SF influencing how we perceive and act upon the environment, I certainly think this can be the case. What first comes to mind are dystopic or doomsday scenarios in media and fiction that present a world that we no longer recognize or that we would want to thwart that might jar people into action, whether that may be individual action or catalyzing into something more large-scale.
But, it could also be positive representations that are hopeful. That is certainly a sentiment worth cultivating. I also don’t think these two seemingly polar opposites (dystopic/utopic) are necessarily mutually exclusive.
That’s an interesting point I quite agree with. ‘Hopepunk’, or dystopia – even if they’re not exclusive, do you have any preference, and if so, which and why?
I’m not sure if I have a preference. I think there’s space for both and everything in between or beyond!
Personally, I probably have more of the optimism slant in me and I probably write with more of a hopeful lilt. (I say ‘probably’ twice because, who knows! People change. Seasons change. I might one day find myself writing in a different way!) But, I think there’s room for both versions and everything spanning the two. There’s a panorama of stories, with each story doing different things for different people. I think it depends on how powerful the images and ideas are and how much they stick with you as a reader or viewer that might compel you to take action or think more about it.
Exactly – and that is, actually, why I like using well-written SF in outreach, this power to evoke emotion and at the same time make people think. Do you think science fiction draws people more toward science? Where do you see its role now, when the covid pandemic highlighted the importance of critical thinking and basic understanding of science?
I certainly think science fiction makes scientific concepts and modes of thinking more accessible and appealing. By drawing from science and using that basis for stories, it’s a model of storytelling that certainly engages readers. You get intriguing narrative, winsome protagonists and heightened stakes—what’s not to like? (Of course there are stories that don’t have these attributes or move beyond these attributes, but in general, I think the answer is a resounding yes!)
In terms of critical thinking, science fiction asks a lot of what-if questions and engages readers/viewers in forward-thinking analysis. Many stories ask or require you to deeply consider a fundamental question about our humanity or where we’re going and the problems this might present. It helps us see beyond what is right in front of us and gently (or brusquely) prods us to delve deeper and broader.
Food in various forms, from cakes or coffee across cocktails all the way to breastmilk, appears repeatedly as a motif in your stories; how do you think our relationship with food might change once some humans live permanently off the Earth?
I love writing and talking about food. Oh… and eating and sharing food! It’s necessary for survival; everyone does it; it hits all the senses and it’s cultural, societal and historical. It lets us gather and have a reprieve, but it’s also a requisite for life. Food offers a sense of identity and belonging, but also can be a way to draw borders or let ‘outside’ people in. It’s essential; I think all life needs some kind of fuel (though perhaps I might be proven wrong with future encounters in deep space!).
I think food can look very different off-Earth, but I think some customs are hard to shake. I mean, why do we create vegan food that looks and tastes like meat? Why do we make sugar-free food with substitute/synthetic sugar? Why do we have such a huge industry trying to come up with crispy, crunchy, chewy, sweet, salty, appetizing things that appeal to our palate? We have certain biologically-driven cravings and certain patterns of expressing our fuel; this doesn’t mean food can’t or won’t change but I think there will be drag or lag… inertial or cultural or familiar in ways that are hard to shake.
We have habituated ourselves to eating in certain ways and some of that might continue on, though I don’t discount the possibility that food culture in outer space or in future colonies or come what may might look quite different from any current or preexisting human cultural context. Especially depending on who or what we come into contact with out there!
What’s the most surprising thing about you?
Hm, not sure about this one! I practice a lot of martial arts and physical activities in general. Some of this comes out in my writing. I think bodily cultivation is just as important as mental, and maybe can’t be pulled apart into (Cartesian) dualities quite in that way!
This is also another reason why I like talking about food… it’s physical, physiological, mental and more!
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a longer form right now that’s on the exploration of outer space, as well!
I have quite a few projects I’m working on… including an analog/digital hybrid art project that touches on alien life. (This is not writing, per se but touches on similar themes)! I have a lot on my plate and am constantly in the midst of clearing it.
Thank you, Julie, for giving me this opportunity to talk science fiction, the potential of life in outer space and the role of stories with you! It’s been a pleasure.
If you liked Strangest of All, stay tuned for the next project of the European Astrobiology Institute! We’ll announce it on April 12, and you can look forward to over twenty short stories by brilliant SF authors, just as many popular science essays, and much more… Don’t miss the announcement!
On Wednesday Jan. 27, from 9 p.m. CET, we’ll be discussing The Ship Whisperer with Draxtor in his Second Life Book Club. Don’t worry if you never tried Second Life – there’s going to be a live stream and then a recording on YouTube! We’ll talk the intersections of art and science, human augmentation, animal psychology and more.
‘Tis the season again… Below is a list of my award-eligible works published this year. Adapted from my Twitter thread.
Followed “Second Generation” in a special medical SF issue of Future SF, edited by @rmAmbrose. Mars settlement, Martian babies, medical mystery, AI, habitability. Called ‘medical mystery solved with typical human ingenuity and panache‘.
“The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” in Samovar started my 2020 novelette season. This historical fantasy set in 1938 Prague revolves around the Neue deutsche Theater and its mix of people and worldviews in refugees from Nazi Germany, liberal Czech Germans as well as Nazi supporters in the ensemble. When a ghost starts terrorizing the opera house already overflowing with tension, an aging writer Paul Leppin [based upon a real historical figure] reluctantly chooses to help the theatre… but in doing so, he might lose himself.
I have a new SF mystery novelette in my otherwise reprint collection The Ship Whisperer. “We Shadows” features multiple personalities, body and mind modification, circuses, and of course a mystery…
Then, “Long Iapetan Night” came out in Asimov’s (Nov/Dec 2020 issue). It was described as ‘frozen terror … that will unsettle even the bravest of us‘, ‘nice mix of hard science fiction and horror‘, ‘vividly portrays both the beauty and the terror of space‘ and ‘a good story with a very good ending‘. It’s accompanied by my nonfiction post on Asimov’s blog.
Best Related Work
Then of course Strangest Of All, the astrobiological SF anthology I edited for @EAIastrobiology! The stories are reprints, but all the nonfiction texts I wrote are brand new; the whole project falls under Best Related Work. I hope we made a difference with it, and definitely plan to follow up on it.
Finally, since in theory works published in other languages than English are eligible for some awards, let me remind you of the #RUR centenary fiction anthology ROBOT100 by @MojeArgo. My ROBOT100 story “Vada ve výrobě” (“A Flaw in The Works”) features a robot contemplating the human genocide in the light of imminent first contact with an interstellar civilization.
Then there’s of course the nonfiction anthology Robot 100: Sto rozumů by @CejkovaJitka (eligible under Best Related Work). However, that one is also coming in English next year, so let’s perhaps wait for the English 2021 edition ;).
My story collection The Ship Whisperer is coming out on Thursday! In the next couple of days, you can look forward to exclusive excerpts and tales behind the stories. Which stories, you ask? I’ve included the full TOC below the cover art.
Stories included in The Ship Whisperer:
- Deep Down in The Cloud
- All The Smells in The World
- To See The Elephant
- Étude for An Extraordinary Mind
- Reset in Peace
- Dreaming Up The Future
- Martian Fever
- We Shadows*
- The Symphony of Ice and Dust
- Dancing An Elegy, His Own
- From So Complex A Beginning
- The Nightside
- The Gift
- The Ship Whisperer
* SF mystery novelette first appearing here
My novelette “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” has just appeared in Samovar in both the Czech original and the English translation. It’s a more personal story for me than usual, revolving around a world I’ve loved for years… all because of a book.
It started out very innocently. I was writing a mystery set in Prague in 1912, and I needed the characters to go to the opera. What performance would they have seen in early December? I started digging in the archives, and the search brought me to a nonfiction book named Až k hořkému konci (To the bitter end) by musicologist Jitka Ludvová. There I found a comprehensive list of performances in the Neue deutsche Theater – and much, much more.
The book tells the history of German theatre in Prague throughout a century: from 1845 to 1945. From the uncertain beginnings all the way to the bitter end. I fell in love with it. I have always loved opera and theatre, but its history as I learned it at school felt dead to me. There were no stories in it, just a dry list of dates and titles. But here, everything was a story. The arrival of the flamboyant Angelo Neumann, the man who’d traveled Europe with a train full of Wagner’s operas. Heinrich Teweles’ way from the theatre to the editor’s chair of Prager Tagblatt and back to the theatre up until shortly after the end of WWI and foundation of Czechoslovakia. Leopold Kramer’s long legal battles to get back Estates Theatre, taken over (read: stolen) by Czech nationalists. Robert Volkner’s attempts to overcome the years of crisis. Paul Eger’s desperate effort to hold the ensemble together when darkness shrouded Europe.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember when it occurred to me to write a ghost story set in the Neue deutsche Theater, nor when I decided to make Gustav Meyrink the protagonist. But that’s how “The Wagner Trouble” (GigaNotoSaurus, April 2017) began, set in late 1887 – just before the official opening of the opera house.
Rewind to before I delved through the looking glass into the land of Prague German theatre. I was already fascinated by the world Prague of late 19th and early 20th century. Or should I say worlds? One Czech; one German. Increasingly separated. Riddled by more and more nationalist feuds up until WWI, and then coexisting again in the schizophrenic ethnic conditions of Czechoslovakia between the wars. The bipolar nature of the relationship fascinated me – including the more or less friendly feud of the Czech National Theatre and the Neue deutsche Theater. Together with Lucie Lukačovičová, we have written three stories set in between “The Wagner Trouble” and “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End”, where this duality of worlds in the city is more prominent – hopefully, you’ll see them published in the foreseeable future.
But the current story, set in 1938, concludes the cycle. It’s set shortly before the Munich Agreement… and you probably know how that went. Still, read the rest only after reading the story, even though you may realize how the course of history went for the opera house.
On September 15, Hitler’s Germany demanded that Czechoslovakia hands over areas with more than 50% of German-speaking citizens. On the same day, people from these areas who feared persecution started fleeing, many of them to Prague. On September 19, France and Britain urged Czechoslovakia to surrender the areas. On September 23, general mobilization in the country effectively brought all cultural events to a stop. The company of the Neue Deutsche Theater was definitively falling apart. On September 29, the Munich Agreement permitted Germany’s annexation of the “Sudetenland”. That day, the theatre’s director Paul Eger, fearing for his life, left Prague and embarked on a journey to Switzerland. Other members of the ensemble started fleeing as well. In October, the company was formally dissolved, and Eger in his letters urged his secretary to thoroughly destroy any materials that could be used against members of the theatre by the Nazis. On November 2, the end of the theatre was officially announced in the press.
Later, during Czechoslovakia’s occupation by Nazi Germany, guest ensembles from Germany revived the theatre. But it had little in common with its previous run. Now it spewed propaganda and permitted no diversity of opinion. It was a theatre none of the previous directors would bear to see.
After the war and reinstatement of the Czechoslovakia state, the Beneš decrees led to the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. Germans were forced to leave the country and leave everything behind, no matter if they supported the previous regime or fought against it; their nationality was reason enough. The era of Neumann, Teweles, Eger and others was cut sharply, never to return.
Irrevocably, the German culture in Bohemia, having existed there for centuries, arrived to a bitter end. The theatre was gone; the fascinating Paul Leppin, whom I’ve made the protagonist of the novelette, was dead; many others were killed or had fled the Nazi regime while they still could; most of those who’d remained were expelled from the country.
The German theatre in Prague may have arrived to an end. But that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. Jitka Ludvová brought the history to life in her nonfiction book, which reads with more thrill than many works of fiction, and became a wonderful inspiration in reviving the epoch and its protagonists again. It had its heroes and villains, mysteries and dramatic conflicts… and in many ways, it was more operatic than any opera. I dare to think that Angelo Neumann and all those who came after him would appreciate that.