The Bookshelf: Dual Identities, Cosmic Radiation, and Jim Kelly's 'Promise of Space'

Dec 7, 2018

Social media allows us to create another self. We have our in-person, corporeal lives, and then there are our digital lives: the people we are (or seem to be) on the screen. Where is this technology going? Will we someday be able to upload ourselves to a digital space and exist only there? And if so, for how long? And what happens to our minds? To free will? To our ability to love?

Nottingham resident and science fiction writer Jim Kelly is no stranger to these questions, having explored them in stories he’s been writing for several years now—stories he has assembled in the new collection called The Promise of Space. Kelly has won the prestigious Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for his work, and he’s on the on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. Scroll down to read his top five list of reading recommendations and a transcript of their conversation.

Jim Kelly's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin.  Le Guin is remembered for her worldbuilding novels, like her fantasy Earthsea series or her science fiction Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness) but this singleton novel is an under-rated classic.  It’s a surreal exploration of a theme: “Be Careful What You Wish For.”  Young George Orr starts having “effective dreams” and whatever he dreams comes true.  But when he tries to use them to make the world a better place, things go horribly wrong.  Le Guin’s tribute to Philip K. Dick.

2.   Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. "Chiang has never written a novel and is not exactly prolific in the short form, but he has yet to publish a story that is less than great and several have become instant classics.  In a genre that is known for its ideas, he is the master of dazzling extrapolation; deep reading of his work will boost your IQ!  The title story of this collection was the basis for the movie The Arrival, one of the best sf films of this century."

3.   The Best of the Best by Gardner Dozois.  "Gardner Dozois, who passed away earlier this year, was arguably the most important editor in the history of science fiction.  He won fifteen Hugo awards, a record, edited Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine from 1986-2004 and edited upwards of one hundred and twenty short story anthologies, including thirty-five editions of The Year’s Best Science Fiction beginning in 1984.  In 2005, he collected the best stories from the first twenty years of his Year’s Best into this book.  If you want to understand modern science fiction, start here."

4.   We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. "While Fowler was first published in genre, she has achieved her much of her fame and best-seller status in the more realistic precincts of literature. But even when she nods toward the fantastic, her work beckons readers of all sensibilities, never more so than in the family saga of tragic siblings and their lost history. This is a novel with an enormous heart and it keeps a remarkable secret. Don’t read the flap copy."

5.   The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum. "As good as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, this second book in the series is better.  And stranger.  It features some of the familiar cast of characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and Glinda, but also some fantastic new additions like Jack Pumpkinhead, T. E. Wogglebug and General Jinjur and her all-girl Army of Revolt. But it is the protagonist, young Tip, who has one of the most amazing character arcs in all of children’s literature."

In a fictional world of your creation here, people seem quite willing to give up their mortal bodies for the immortality of a second, digital self. What makes you think people are so willing to do that?

You just have to look online, as you said in your introduction. We’re already on the cusp of that. People become different people online in their Facebook page and it doesn’t necessarily represent who they are but it represents an avatar, an aspect of them.

But the other thing is that we are also on the cusp of some amazing digital revolution in terms of what computers can do and what we can do with our computers and so I think that a lot of people are likely to, when they add up the pluses and minuses of a funeral home and digital afterlife, opt for that—even if their digital afterlife is not quite the same and, in some ways, is attenuated from the life that they lived when they were in their bodies. Nonetheless, it is a way of going on. I don’t think everyone will choose that, but it’s a big world with a lot of people with feelings about going on.

The title of your book is The Promise of Space and it’s named after a story in the collection in which a man is living a kind of technologically augmented existence after being sickened by his trips to Mars. He can’t remember much and his relationship with his wife, who is a science fiction writer, is suffering. This seems like a pretty bleak “promise.” Is that how you view the promise of space?

This is a controversial story and in some ways represents a betrayal of my heritage as a science fiction writer. I’m not optimistic about our future in space. I do think we should send our robots to space. But when we talk about sending our bodies to space, I think one of the things that will happen is that which happens to my hero. There’s a thing out there, a nasty thing called galactic cosmic radiation and it’s all over space and being out there for any length of time, for instance, our friends who are planning on going to Mars, will be out there and have a serious dosage of radiation on that trip. So how does the human body react to that? Not well.

But it goes to what we were just talking about. Maybe our bodies may not be able to go to space, but if there is, in fact, an uploading technology where we can live in computer space, then we can go to Mars, to the stars, but not as embodied human beings.
 

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

You write in the afterword here that you were interested in writing more stories from the female perspective. Why?

Science fiction, alas, started as a boys club. It’s the boys’ treehouse, the boys were reading it, the boys were writing it, and women weren’t necessarily welcome. Over the course of my lifetime, it has come to pass that many, many wonderful women writers have changed the culture of the field. Not only women writers but people of all sorts. Diverse writers, different genders, different nationalities, different races. You’ve got to pay attention to the impacts of different cultures who all have access to science fiction, as we have access to their cultures.

There’s one story in this book that’s told from the perspective of a “dependent intelligence.” She’s essentially a sex bot. She’s built to attend to this one guy’s every need. She is eventually set free. I bring it up because I wanted to ask you about something that appeared in your blog regarding this story. You said you had some women read this story and they had some things to tell you about how to write about a female sex bot. What did they tell you?

The first thing is that they were immediately repelled by the idea.

The idea of a man writing about this, or about the idea of a sex bot in general?

They were immediately repelled by the idea of a sex bot, and by the idea of a man writing about it also. It made them feel a little squeaky. I had a hard time with that. And there’s a tradition in science fiction of robots, but the nature of robot is very problematic because, if it’s smart enough to do stuff that you want it to do, then why is it your servant? And so there is the slave narrative that comes up in every science fiction robot and then to layer on top of it the sex aspect—it’s dangerous ground to be walking on.

But I think what I was schooled on by my dear female colleagues, my women friends, was: “You’ve got to be careful from the get-go. You can’t introduce this subject and then later do a quick plot reversal and say, ‘Okay, it was all a joke.’ No, you’ve got to be careful from the very start.” So there’s a character in this story who is talking to the sex bot. She’s actually part of the bot liberation group, a secret underground bot liberation group. She explains to the sex bot: “Your programming is a kind of insanity.” Of course, the sex bot doesn’t agree with that, but it is, in fact, exactly the point I needed to make for women to continue reading this story and not throw it across the room.

This other female in the story essentially says: “Your mindless devotion to this man is holding you back.”

Right.

And if you give up this devotion and start tending to your own needs, you’ll experience more of what it’s like to be a fully realized human, even though she doesn’t say it’s human. It seems to me, the reader, that she’s becoming more of herself.

What’s interesting about this story is that she can say that's all she wants, but she has programming that prevents her from coming to that realization. The story asks: What would happen if, somehow, that programming was removed?

MFA programs have traditionally shown a kind of aversion to genre fiction. They don’t want to see Danielle Steele-esque stuff. They don’t want science fiction unless it has a well-developed character. They’re more John Cheever than Isaac Asimov, I should say. Is there a place for science fiction in MFA programs? If so, what is that place?

It’s short-sighted of any writer to not pay attention to the culture he or she lives in. Our culture is on a rampage into the future with technology changing the way we live every day. For any writer who wants to be writing about 2018 or 2019 and not taking that into account, you’re basically looking backwards. I don’t think that’s the fiction writer’s job.

There is, in fact, though a long-standing prejudice against science fiction in the academy. But it’s interesting that the academy of teaching has come to its senses more quickly, I think, with regard to acknowledging that science fiction literature is literature, than the creative writing community, which is still worried that we’re going to be getting space bimbos in brass bras and warriors wearing a space helmet and loin cloths. This is the kind of pop culture, pulpy baggage that science fiction unfortunately still brings to it.

But in general, when you look at the more recent award winners in mainstream literary fiction, you see a lot of writers who are playing with the science fiction tropes.

So how should science fiction be taught in MFA programs? Or should it be taught?

Well, one of the things that happens—it’s a mutant form of literature. The mutation has been that we have a whole history of robot stories, and so when you come to write a robot story now and you’ve never read a robot story of the history, what you sometimes end up doing is reinventing the wheel. What will keep the robots from killing us? Well, there’s a huge, you know, bulk of literature that talks about how this could be prevented. And so if you don’t know that, you’re going to be writing a story, and science fictions will say, “Oh, come on!” And a literary, mainstream reader may never have read any robot stories may say, “Oh, that’s very interesting. I never thought of that.” Well, people have been thinking about it for 80 years.

So you’re saying it’s tough to introduce to readers in an MFA class a very specific, aware genre story?

I think that’s right. And part of it is that some of the teachers—some of my colleagues who are teaching—will say, “I love this story. You have great characters. But I don’t understand the ideas of it.” Not the ideas, but the world-building. The background. You’ve changed the world you we’re living in to get to the world that you’re writing about. And that’s difficult work.