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March, 2007 : Interview:

An Interview with Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear burst on the speculative fiction scene when she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and with the publication of the Jenny Casey trilogy (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired) from Bantam in 2005, for which she won the Locus Award for First Novel in 2006. According to Wikipedia, "Her CV includes working as a 'media industry professional', a stablehand, a fluff-page reporter, a maintainer-of-Microbiology-procedure-manuals for a 1000-bed inner-city hospital, a typesetter and layout editor, a traffic manager for an import-export business, Emmanuel Labour, and 'the girl who makes the donuts at The Whole Donut at three A.M.'" Her current novel Carnival (Bantam) reviewed in this issue is a nominee for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Lyda Morehouse: I think it's very interesting that in the future of Carnival, thanks to an eco-terrorism/plague (?), there are basically no white people left on Earth. What was your thought process when deciding to do this? Were you writing against any trends youíve seen in SF or...?

Elizabeth Bear: Specifically, the background situation [in the novel] is that, some time ago, an eco-terrorist organization released a plague of nanites that ate all the white people.

And, [yes,] a little bit. There's a not-unjustified perception that SFF is overwhelmingly white, both the readership and the characters. And I wanted to write a book in which race is absolutely not an issue; not even of interest to the characters. That was one of the ways in which I tried to set that up.

Also, there is a whole complex of issues—the idea of the so-called "developing world," this concept of the superiority of industrialized nations and whether they (we) have a responsibility to the rest of the world, our massive overshare of resource usage, and so onóthe consideration of which forms some of what I consider the thematic underpinning of the book.

LM: That was clear to me. Yet this seems like an awfully politically charged theme. Though I personally believe this is the sort of thing science fiction writers have been doing for years, do you find resistance from editors (or readers) when you take on such hot-button issues?

EB: Not a bit of it. I hesitate to proclaim that we're becoming savvier as a species, but nobody has even mentioned it.

I fail controversy.

LM: I'm not so sure about that. <g> I am glad to hear, however, that readers and editors aren't shying away from these kinds of novels. Do you think there's something inherently more risk-taking about the SF/F audience in terms of the things they're willing to explore in fiction?

EB: No, but I think queerness is losing its titillation factor, thank God, at least in some parts of the country. And frankly, there's nothing all that shocking about the relationships in Carnival. No squick factor in either the heterosexual or homosexual relationships, unless you count the betrayals and lies and double crossings that are part and parcel of a spy novel.

I mean, this stuff might have been edgy in 1975, but I honestly don't think it is anymore.

What I do think is edgy about the book is its discussions of human rights and the dangers of utopic or magical thinking.

LM: Tell me more about this.

EB: Well, the book posits that anybody's Utopia is somebody else's hell, and that the only humane solution is a series of compromises that has to be endlessly and constantly reworked, and which will generally leave somebody unhappy.

That's pretty contrary to both our confrontational American political system, and our general idea that there is a Solution to everything.

LM: Our American system? See now, I would have guessed you to be Canadian. I'm sure that mistake is partly due to the fact that the Jenny series takes place in a future Canada, which I'm not sure anyone has done. What's your background? Where do you consider yourself from?

EB: I'm a New Englander. I lived in Las Vegas for seven years, but I am back in Connecticut now.

I think Rob Sawyer's books are often set in Canada.

I actually think it's kind of odd, that the thing in those books that's gotten the most attention is the setting. They're set in Canada because Jenny is Canadian, because in the future I've set up, the United States has been busy with internal unrest, and because a revitalized British Commonwealth seemed like something that could become a contender on the world stage in the next sixty years. It's all joint corporate/governmental space exploration, anyway.

I think a lot of genre writers have this concept of "You can't do that!" because it's not already being done. Which is silly. The thing that you see not being done is the thing you should be doing. In my opinion, anyway. Or, you know, just the thing you want to do.

Younger writers trying to do what older writers are already doing successfully is like, I dunno, feminists who are still trying to win the approval of the patriarchy. Who cares what the establishment thinks? Who cares if you change some tight-assed bigot's mind? Go out and do your own thing; nothing pisses people who want to control your life off more than being ignored. Every rebellious teenager knows this.

LM: True enough. How does your own racial/ethnic background inform your decision to write about race?

EB: <g> I am a white person. I'm of mostly Slavic, Celtic, and Scandahoovian background. But I lived in mixed-race neighborhoods, I went to mixed-race schools, I grew up attending women's music festivals and so forth where it was special—kind of exalted—to be a woman of color. I had friends who were black or Chinese or Cambodian. I didn't know many Latinos until I lived in the Southwest.

Also, I grew up on Connecticut, a state with a great deal of pride in its multi-ethnic composition. I know, you wouldn't think it, would you, because the stereotype is the rich WASP-infested coastal towns. But Hartford and environs are quite diverse.

My first experience with anything like racial awareness was when I got to college.

I found it very odd, because the prejudice I had been raised with was anti-Italian prejudice. Seems very nineteenth century, doesn't it? But that's what comes of having immigrant grandparents. You hate the people who are a threat to you.

As the daughter of a lesbian, growing up in Reagan's America, I have some experience with what it's like to be Other.

LM: You're the daughter of a lesbian? Awesome. As a lesbian mom, I'm curious: how much did that suck?

EB: Probably a hell of a lot more in 1980 than it does now.

Let me rephrase: it never sucked being my mom's daughter, except in the ways that being anybody's daughter can suck. Sometimes, dealing with other people sucked a lot.

But then again, it gave me a lot of self-confidence, in the long run. Because you learn that other people are usually full of shit when they attempt to judge you, early on.

LM: What inspired you to make the world of Carnival a gender role-reversal? It seems to me that there have been a number of these kinds of books in the last few years. Most notably, perhaps, being Wen Spencer's A Brother's Price (which was on the Tiptree short-list last year). What issues do you get at by doing this sort of thing as an author? Do you think there's still something that needs to be said about gender and gender roles?

EB: I don't think of the book as a gender reversal story. Not even remotely; not in the same sense that Wen's book is a gender reversal. Carnival is not a book about putting men in women's roles to examine those roles (I do have such a novel: called A Companion to Wolves, it's written with Sarah Monette and forthcoming from Tor this autumn.). Rather, Carnival is a book (in part) about what happens when people with different expectations of men's and women's roles—as part of very different and equally flawed utopian ideologies, which I think is the important bit—meet and have to negotiate each other's cultural preconceptions.

Absolutely, I think there's room to talk about sex and gender and sexuality and gender roles; but that's not what I'm talking about here, or not primarily. (It may be what the reader is reading about; it's certainly one of the threads taking up what I see as the primary thematic arguments in the book.)

LM: I guess I'm skirting around asking: haven't feminist SF authors covered most of this ground already?

EB: If you think I haven't brought anything new to the discussion, then it would seem so, I guess. The idea of a woman-run society was certainly explored in the 1970s and 1980s—I certainly owe a tremendous debt of intellectual gratitude to Joanna Russ, because New Amazonia wouldn't exist without Whileaway. And there are certainly any number of brilliant books discussing issues in gender roles and social ills that may or may not be biologically based: The Gate to Women's Country, Walk to the End of the World. There's a wonderful literature of and tradition of feminist science fiction.

If I didn't think I had anything to add, I wouldn't have written the novel. I find that, from the perspective of thirty-odd years, a fair amount of the utopian and dystopian literature of the seventies makes me want to go, "Wait, but—" and that's what Carnival is for. I would say that its literary antecedents are "When It Changed" and Farnham's Freehold, with drive-by nods to Andre Norton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Varley.

Whatever value it may have, though; I leave as an exercise to the reader. All I can talk about is what I was thinking when I wrote it. The rest is not my job.

LM: To go back to the issue of race for a moment: I totally failed to realize that one of the main characters, Vincent, was a red-haired black man. I suspect Iím not the only person who overlaid my own cultural biases on your clearly written descriptions. So, I guess my thought/question is: because a majority of your readers are presumably white you, in effect, have to work double-time to get people to remember that there are no Caucasians in this future. So, to make race not an issue, you have to expend a lot of energy on race. And, yet, despite all that attention, there are some people certain not to get it, due to their own racial biases. What do you make of that?

EB: It is life. You can never control what the reader brings to the story. Especially the obnoxious readers like me, who go out of their way to read against the text on purpose.

And I may have been overly facile when I said that race would not be an issue. However, it comes back to the idea of utopias; a lot of people in the world, when they envision a utopia, envision a world without white people.

So what if they got their wish?

LM: And you say you're not a radical? <g>

EB: Oh, I never said I wasnít a radical. I said Carnival isn't radical. <g>

LM: It's interesting that earlier you bring up the idea that queerness has lost its titillation factor. Yet, in this book and in your Hammered series, the gay men are...duplicitous at best. Isn't that a bit of a stereotype?

EB: They are? Or, in specific, they're any more duplicitous than anybody else?

Heck, two of the kindest, most nurturing people in the Jenny books (Georges and Jeremy) are gay men. Are you sure you're not projecting?

LM: [laughs] Well, in all honesty, I might be. Iím fairly duplicitous myself, and Iím also always on defensive when it comes to queer characters in fiction (or any medium for that matter.) Fred is the villain in that series, such as there is one, isnít he?

EB: I wouldn't call Fred a villain. Jenny would. But Jenny's not always right about people.

But then I wouldn't call Fred "gay," either. As far as I know, he's had two long-term relationships, one with a man and one with a woman. And I have no idea how he self-identifies, or if he self-identifies at all. It never came up!

LM: Wasn't he married to a man?

EB: Fred's married to Georges. He used to be married to Patricia's grandmother, and had a son by her.

LM: The relationships in the Jenny-verse are fascinating to me, because there's a sort of polyamorous thing going on with Jenny and company. Do you think polyamory is the new queer in terms of the titillation factor? (Not, by the way, that I'm accusing you of going for the titillation factor there, in fact, the opposite. I thought the polyamory in that book was subtle and true to what I've seen in life.)

EB: I dunno. People were writing about extended and nontraditional families in SFF forty years ago. Is it anything but background noise, these days?

I've actually been asked if those books are a polemical in favor of polyamory; I find that dead amusing. I think it's amazing that anybody can keep a relationship together—I'm not about to say that there's a right way or a wrong way to do it. My attitudes are pretty much traditional mind-your-own-business-Yankee: I don't care what you do, as long as you don't scare the horses or send anybody to the emergency room.

LM: I can get behind that. Are there other reactions to things that youíve written that surprise you?

EB: The shock over the Canadian setting for the Jenny books, the way that certain readers insist there must be good guys and bad guys in the Promethean Age books (I'm in sympathy with both sides, for different reasons), a couple of people who've responded to Carnival by calling it "yaoi" or "slash." (Both are terms for different types of gay male erotica or romance, which is not how I think of the book. The primary conflict is not romantic, in other words. It's ethical.)

Readers are amazing beasts. They persist in having opinions and agendas and perspectives that totally differ from my own.

LM: Itís frustrating, isnít it? I hate to admit that I almost understand the "yaoi" comment regarding Carnival, however. You have two very pretty boys in that book. Thatís going to kick in some peopleís kink, no matter how carefully you write it. Plus, the sex is hot.

EB: The book has two one-page sex scenes, which are less graphic than things I've read in Judy Blume books. That's not my idea of erotica.

I do find it entertaining that most of the commentary on the books seems to fix on the two male protagonists rather than the female one, who—to my mind—is just as heroic and interesting and conflicted, if not more so. And who is certainly a driving influence on the plot.

A little institutional sexism, maybe?

LM: Maybe, but I think part of the reason readers fixate on the men is simply a matter of "imprinting." You start with their story, therefore our brains peg them as the main characters, whose conflicts are considered central. Which is why people are probably reading the book as a love story first, and why some are placing it in the camp of "yaoi"—which, to be fair to the readers of it, is not porn, but romantic erotica, heavy on the romance.

EB: Exactly my point. The book has a thriller plot and a pair of romance sub-plots, not the other way around.

If people want to read it as a romance, that's fine. I have no problem with that. I just think that identifying it as primarily a romance because we're societally incapable of not finding The Gay distracting is foolishness.

LM: Well, also, if I read you right, Michelangelo is the only "true" human, in that he comes from Earth. Most readers will gravitate to that which is most like them.

EB: They're all human. They're not half-alien. They're all human, and the products of human cultures. Michelangelo is from Earth, yes. But Earth's culture, at this point, is far more alien that that of Vincent's homeworld.

LM: But they do come from alien societies. I would posit that both Vincent and Michelangelo are ridiculously complex and complicated characters...and entangled. A lot of people can relate to that. Pretoria isn't even named in the back jacket copy, and her relationship with her lover is complicated by the social structure of New Amazonia.

EB: <g> So you're holding me responsible for jacket copy? Because I think Lesa's family dynamics are at least as interesting as anyone else's. If not more so; they drive the entire plot of the book, after all.

I have to say, though, I think the idea that people might identify with Michelangelo because he's "like" them is a little odd. Unless you're suggesting that most of my readers suffer borderline personality disorder. Which is of course a possibility....

LM: What, by the way, was your reasoning for sticking so much with last names? (I suddenly blanked on her first name because you were so focused on surnames in the book.)

EB: But I don't. Lesa thinks of herself as Lesa. Vincent and Michelangelo, at first, think of her as Miss Pretoria, and then, as she becomes more of a colleague and less of a stranger, begin thinking of her on first name basis. She goes through the same transition with them.

Vincent thinks of himself as Vincent and Michelangelo as Angelo, and Michelangelo thinks of himself as Kusanagi-Jones, except in certain distinct circumstances, when his guard drops and he forgets that layer of defensiveness.

LM: It was that last bit that struck me, I think. Did you find any particular challenges as a woman writing sex scenes between men?

EB: Oddly enough, I have male friends. <g> And no problems asking them to vet my sex scenes.

It's not any different than writing a conversation between two men. Or writing from a male POV in general. I think that people write unbelievable characters of whatever gender when they think of that character as a type—"Oh, my god, I have to write a female character! Well, girls like... clothes. And makeup. And they worry about being fat. I'll put that in!"—rather than a person.

LM: True enough. Plus, science fiction writers always tackle the Other in some way. Is that part of the appeal to you for writing SF/F?

EB: I don't believe in the Other. I think it's a construct we use to shore up our own shaky self-images. People are people; they may have personal or cultural or biological differences, but any given dog is far more different in its thought processes than the most alien human.

It's just easier to alienate and serve our own self-interest if we divide the world up into Us and Them.

LM: So, which are you? Us or Them?

EB: If I have to pick one, I'm Them. But generally I would prefer to remain on the fence.

LM: Seriously, though, what are your current writing projects? What Bear books can we expect to challenge our assumptions in 2007?

EB: Forthcoming in 2007, I have a collection—New Amsterdamófrom Subterranean Press; a modern fantasy novel, one of the Promethean Age books—Whiskey and Water—from Roc; a stand-alone SF novel—Undertow—from Spectra; and a subversive fuzzy animal companion fantasy—A Companion to Wolves—cowritten with Sarah Monette, from TOR.

Right now I'm working on a space opera set aboard a derelict generation ship.

Copyright © 2007, Lyda Morehouse. All Rights Reserved.

About Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse writes about what gets most people in trouble: religion and politics. Her first novel Archangel Protocol, a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective novel with a romantic twist, won the 2001 Shamus for best paperback original (a mystery award given by the Private Eye Writers of America), the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for best debut science fiction, and was nominated for the Romantic Times Critic's Choice Award. She followed up Archangel Protocol with three more books in the AngeLINK universe: Fallen Host (Roc, 2002), Messiah Node (Roc, 2003), and Apocalypse Array (Roc, 2004). Fallen Host made the preliminary Nebula ballot, and Apocalypse Array was awarded the Special Citation of Excellence (aka 2nd place) for the Philip K. Dick award. Lyda also writes a chick lit vampire novel series as Tate Hallaway. The first book Tall, Dark & Dead (Berkley, 2006) made several bestseller lists and the second, Dead Sexy is due out in May 2007. Lyda is a member of Wyrdsmiths and lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her partner of twenty years and their amazingly adorable son, Mason.

You can catch up with all of Lyda's various personas at Tate Hallway's Blog Lyda's Blog and/or Wyrdsmiths' Group blog.


Mar 12, 19:56 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Elizabeth Bear, her work, or Lyda's interview.

The article can be found here.
Mar 13, 09:19 by Jason Ridler
I'm confused about this novel's set up the way it is described in the interview. Bear says she wipes out all the white people so that race is not an issue in her world.

If you kill off any race as part of the world of your story, how can it not be an issue? I have not read the work in question, but Bear's statement seems very strange to me. Get rid of the white people and race is no longer a concern. I may be over simplifying things, so if someone has read the work, could you help clarify this point?
Mar 13, 10:25 by Joe Tokamak
I expect she meant that the history of European v. The World in skin color / "racial" terms is not an issue for the characters in the story. When characters of different cultures clash, it's not about skin color in particular or that history of culture clash in general -- it's about the specific cultural differences that Bear wants to focus on.

Mainly a number of different issues pertaining to gender roles and sexual preference, and also vegetarianism, in my reading.

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