Doomsday planets and cultivating life: ‘Strangest of All’ author interview with D.A. Xiaolin Spires

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!

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