“We will always dream of a future”: JJ Interviews the editors of WE SEE A DIFFERENT FRONTIER
Jungle Jim recently had the privilege of posing some questions to kindred wizards: Djibril al-Ayad (editor of THE FUTURE FIRE, the journal of Social Political & Speculative CyberFiction) and Brazilian SF writer Fábio Fernandes – now both editors of the upcoming WE SEE A DIFFERENT FRONTIER: a collection of colonialism-themed SF. Djibril and Fábio are currently fundraising to turn the magazine into a book-length, full-blown, mind-blowing anthology, that will blow all preconceptions about SF beyond the exosphere. With SIX DAYS TO GO for the fundraiser, we at JJ are immensely excited about this adventure, and you hope will be too, dear readers and writers – especially after reading our exclusive interview: Read on to find out what SF can be, what it can do for you, as well as some awesome SF recommendations for intrepid interweb readers…
Why is SF so important today? Would you say it is even more important than ever before?
Djibril: Insofar as science fiction, or speculative fiction more widely, is the literature of the imaginary, I think it still has tremendous scope to transgress boundaries, to correct injustices, poke at the festering scars of prejudice with more or less satirical content. In this sense, it is as important now as ever, when contacts and conflicts between cultures happen every day, when sexism and homophobia are under the surface but no less a real part of daily lives, when the divide between rich and poor is rising in much of the world, and governments and corporations have unprecedented ability to surveil and control the population. Science fiction has always had a lot to say about all of these issues, ethics and technologies, and I think it’s essential that we carry on pushing these questions as hard as we can.
Fábio: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I can’t see how SF is NOT important today of all ages. People keep saying: “but we live in the world of the future! We have telepresence surgeries, probe missions to Mars, smartphones!” I agree this is wonderful indeed, and even William Gibson is fond of saying in interviews he isn’t a prophet as many of his fans like to call him, because he didn’t predict the advent of cellphones, so there you have it: we may as well be living in the world of the future… in some parts of the globe. But, right now, not in Greece, not in Syria, not in some places deep in the Amazon basin. People still dream of a better future, people still dream of a future. We will always dream of a future.
Djibril: And people who hark back to a “golden age” of SF usually self-select a subset of science fiction that was conservative even in its day to hold up and say, “Why can’t we keep a sense of wonder like this in our SF?” My answer is, because it’s not a sense of wonder any more; it’s just a game. The real job of speculative fiction is to surprise, to alienate, to discomfort, to confound expectations, to make you squirm in your seat. Today more than ever, it’s important to discomfort people.
Fábio: I love this Kelly Link quote that, I think, describes it all much better than I could ever do it: “I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of fed up with realism. After all, there’s enough reality already; why make more of it? Why not leave realism for the memoirs of drug addicts, the histories of salt, the biographies of porn stars? Why must we continue to read about the travails of divorced people or mildly depressed Canadians when we could be contemplating the shopping habits of zombies, or the difficulties that ensue when living and dead people marry each other? We should be demanding more stories about faery handbags and pyjamas inscribed with the diaries of strange women. We should not rest until someone writes about a television show that features the Free People’s World-Tree Library, with its elaborate waterfalls and Forbidden Books and Pirate-Magicians. We should be pining for a house haunted by rabbits.”
How do you see the relationship between SF and time (future, past and present)?
Fábio: There is no possible way of talking / writing SF or about SF without taking into account the relation with our own history. Quoting Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, “It is impossible to discuss non-western SF without considering the effects of colonialism.” I would stretch this notion to the whole globe and the whole of history. Science fiction is a megatext (Damien Broderick, Darko Suvin), that is, every time you want to write, say, about time travel, you better know this subgenre very well, otherwise you are going to ending up reinventing the wheel. But so far we’ve been doing it vertically in time, from the past to the present, from the precursors (Verne, Wells) to the Golden Age (Campbell, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein), the cyberpunks (Gibson, Sterling), and the steampunks (Carriger, Priest, Valentine, to name just a few). Note, please, that I mentioned just Anglo-Americans. There is a plethora of authors outside the Anglo-American sphere of influence that started writing scientific romances and short stories in the 19th Century by the same time Verne and Wells were doing it (Machado de Assis and Coelho Neto in Brazil, for example, and Murilo Rubião and José J. Veiga in the 1940s through the 1970s). There are whole parallel SF traditions out there. (Or should I say in here, since I’m speaking from an insider from the POV of my culture, which is not exactly the same culture as the Anglo-Americans, as much as I’ve been influenced by it?)
Personally, I think this relationship should be better explored. The better part of the non-Anglo tradition is virtually unknown outside the USA and Europe, and therefore is ignored. Global SF can only gain with these other traditions; it has nothing to lose.
Djibril: Another way of looking at this question is to be very literalist and say that fiction in the speculative genres is all about time. Many stories are writing about the future, either a scientifically plausible future in the case of mundane and hard science fiction, or a fantastic future in space fantasy, or even a once-possible future that never was in alternate history narratives. But we should never forget that all stories are deeply embedded in the present of their authors: literary scholars know that a 19th century science fiction story tells us more about the attitudes and mores of that era and place than they do about any other period or place or science. We think about it less with regard to 21st century fiction, but it’s equally true. And most importantly of all, as Fábio points out, our appreciation of any literature, including and perhaps even especially the literature of the future, depends heavily on our understanding of the history that it is built on. The history of events that have shaped our cultures, including colonialism, civil and human rights, political history that shapes our understanding of nationhood, of leadership and public office, international conflict. But also the literary history, the classics such as Homer and the Bible, early English and other modern literatures, colonial and postcolonial texts, and all the written and oral literatures of the world contribute to the narratives and imaginations that write and read science fiction. (Even if you think you’re “just reading for pleasure”, you’re using all of this tacit knowledge to inform your reading.)
What is the most surprising vision of the future you have received from THE FUTURE FIRE contributors?
Djibril: In terms of stories that have created a future world so different from our own that it requires a shift in mentality to accept it, I think immediately of stories like Looking Glass Vacation by Sarah Ann Watts, and City of Sand and Knives by A.J. Fitzwater. These sorts of stories used to be called “mind-blowing” science fiction. But you asked about surprising vision, and so I honestly have to answer that the story that has surprised me the most was one that I first read and couldn’t see anything special about at all. In fact I stared at it for a while, thinking, “Have I missed something?” Then I recalibrated my brain somehow and read it again, and realized that it was saying something very important, and it’s one of my favorite stories we’ve ever published in TFF: Ephemeral Love, by Melanie Rees. I don’t want to say why. Read it if you want an idea of the sort of fiction we’ve always hoped to publish.
Do you perceive any trends in the stories you receive, and what does this say to you about how people, writers at least, view the future, where the world is heading and/or how it is today?
Fábio: I can’t say anything in particular for TFF at this point, but, based in my experience as an editor in Brazil, it worries me that many of Brazilian writers (and Latin American writers in general as well, from my experience as a reader of fanzines and anthologies of Hispanic-American SF) write stories in which the main characters are still Anglo-American, and the stories are so full of clichés. And Latin America and Brazil hardly appear at all. So, when I read stories like Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War (where The Greater Brazil is a major world power) and Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (which takes place in Brazil of the past, the present and the near future), I become a bit frustrated, and say to myself, “Damn, a Brazilian writer should have done that.” But I’m tired of thinking this way. I started writing the things I wanted to see, and encouraging people to do the same. This is why I offered to guest edit a special issue of The Future Fire next December, and I proposed post-colonialism as the main theme. WE SEE A DIFFERENT FRONTIER aims to tackle this issue full front. It is an anthology looking for stories from the perspective of people and places that are colonized under regimes not of their choosing (in the past, present or even future). It is not focused on stories about a White Man learning the error of his ways; nor parables about alien contact in which the Humans are white anglos, and the Aliens are an analogue for other races. We want stories told from the viewpoint of colonized peoples. Think District 9, if you will, but grittier and without the clichés. We are doing a crowdfunding initiative via Peerbackers (because Kickstarter is US-only, there you have it), and your readers can know more about the project here: http://peerbackers.com/projects/we-see-a-different-frontier/
Djibril: I’ve been thinking about this while Fábio is talking, and you know I’m not sure I can think of any trends in stories we’ve been sent. It took us quite a long time to build up a reputation for social political SF so that people understood that was what we were looking for, and even now 50% of our slush is real easy to reject because it just doesn’t fill that one requirement. I think I agree with Fábio though that the main trend you see in speculative fiction is the lazy assumption that the reader will be white, male, hetero, able bodied, middle class, anglo… so all the heroes and main characters can be too (with a few exceptions for support, local color, or love interest). Getting away from that assumption on its own leads to a literature much like what I want to see. I want to see writers who know that’s not what everyone looks like, because that’s not what they look like or where they’re grown up. The world is not monochrome now, even if you grow up in the English countryside or a Midwestern American town; let’s not make things even more boring than they really are, shall we?
What has been your favourite expression of SF (in books, film, comics etc)? And why?
Djibril: I would literally answer this question differently asked on any given day, but today I’m going to go with a post-apocalyptic short story by Octavia Butler: ‘Speech Sounds’. This story takes place in a world of collapsed society pretty much like any nuclear fall-out or zombie outbreak story, where people turn against each other and succumb to their worst instincts rather than working together as they need to now more than ever. It’s a story full of fear and loathing and cynicism, but also of hope and beauty and faith in human nature and our ability to heal. And it’s a profoundly political story, because the nature of the collapse that has torn everybody apart is the loss of the ability to communicate, and it is our communication, in all forms, that make us civilized and human. Speaking is so important (and listening); so are writing and reading; and performing and singing and reciting and inventing and lying and riddling and word-playing. Without these society would collapse (or not be worth living in). Octavia shows it so beautifully, as she always does. A work of genius.
Fábio: I have to go with the emotional side and answer Neuromancer. I read it in 1989 and a whole new world opened to me. I was in awe of what Gibson had just done remixing pop culture—a thing my generation was starting to do in search of an expression. There was plenty of style and a hell of substance as well. I still reread it often—it reminds me why I love science fiction. Not that I need to be reminded, but it’s my personal addiction, you know. I’m still a punk at heart.
The attention paid to international SF on your blog is fascinating: Any particular new International (i.e. non-American, non-Anglophone) titles that our readers could watch out for?
Fábio: If I may recommend titles not translated (yet, I hope) to English, I would suggest, from Brazil, Fausto Fawcett’s Santa Clara Poltergeist, a cyberpunk noir romp in near-future Copacabana; from Algeria, Mohammed Dib’s Qui se souvient de la mer, an acclaimed dystopian novel who is much in need of a translation for decades now.
Djibril: I would suggest that the fine people at the Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation Awards have done a lot of research into this, and their nominations list for the 2012 award is a pretty good place to start.
This is of course exactly why we’re raising funds to make the We See a Different Frontier anthology professional and high-paying. As well as publishing an anthology that people will want to read, and raising important issues of colonialism and decolonization and all the rest, I hope this project will bring to the attention of a mainstream (which largely means Anglophone world) SF/F readership several new authors with backgrounds and experiences from colonized countries, rather than the usual suspects. We’re not going to go out and try to buy rights to pre-published classic stories in the colonial genre; we’re very much interested in new names, new stories, new voices to come to us. There’s an extra challenge here, which is to make sure these authors hear about us, and know that it’s them we’re looking for, because it would be too easy to post the CFS in the usual places and then wonder why our slushpile was full of stories by white Americans.
More than anyway, I want to be amazed, discomforted, disturbed and alienated by the stories we get sent. I want stories that I can’t name the genre. Stories that test the limits of the English language. Stories that I’ve never heard before, but didn’t know I’d never heard.
We hope all JJ’s current and prospective contributors will be ready with some surprises when WEE SEE A DIFFERENT FRONTIER posts its call for submissions.
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(Image by Robin E. Kaplan)