An Interview with Kelly Jennings

Portrait courtesy of Kelly Jennings

In addition to writing superb space operas like Fault Lines and In the Deep, Dr. Kelly Jennings teaches English and English literature, writes reviews for publications such as Asimov’s and Strange Horizons, and maintains delagar, her blog.

You can find a complete bibliography of her work here.

I interviewed Kelly Jennings via a collaborative Google Doc from October 2021 to January 2022.

An easy one first: How would you describe Fault Lines and In the Deep?

All of my work starts with characters, and with the cultures that give rise to them. In this case, I had a spaceship captain and her two crewmen, all of whom had come from very different subcultures of the same culture—that is, Velocity, my ship’s captain, had been born into the cutthroat world of the Combine Houses, the corporate oligarchy that runs the Republic. Tai, her first officer, was born into debt slavery on a planet owned by Velocity’s own Combine. Rida, their pilot, was indentured into a technological school run by yet another Combine when he was five years old.

My aim: to explore what sort of people are created by a society with such vast inequalities of wealth and status. Somehow I also ended up writing about corporate nationalism, labor politics, and genetic engineering. Oh, and also artificial intelligence. This last was because a Pirian AI ended up on Velocity’s ship, the Susan Calvin, forcing me to think about why the Pirians might be creating AI and shipping it into Republic space.

[…] I’m always thinking about how environment shapes cultures and cultures shape people.

Kelly Jennings

The Pirians, who are only mentioned in Fault Lines, are major players in In the Deep. Their fleet started out as my utopian space—the foil to my Republic. But as I said, I’m always thinking about how environment shapes cultures and cultures shape people.

The history of my novels goes something like this: Earth suffers an extinction-level environmental collapse about a century from now. At that point, several corporations in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Australia form the Combine Houses—fortress-like havens for their executives, the families of those executives, and any ‘qualified’ employees. Your option if you were on Earth at this point was to find some way to qualify, or risk death outside the Combine walls.

The Pirians, who come from East Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand, and various islands in Oceania, chose a third path: working together, they built three generation-style ships and set off for the nearest star known to have exoplanets that might support life.

Well before they reached this star, Pirian engineers had invented the jump drive, and jumped to star systems further out from Earth. They also built and have continued to build new ships, creating the fleet that they would spend centuries living on. Since that time they have continued to move further from Earth (and further from the planets near Earth—the Core planets—now held by the Combines).

That’s a practical tactic; the cultural result is that while the Combines are xenophobic and guard their wealth zealously, Pirians welcome strangers and see giving aid to others as a virtue.

Kelly Jennings

The Combine culture values the acquisition of wealth and power, along with the ‘purity’ of their genetic stock. The Pirian fleet values shared wealth, shared power, and exogamy. This last is a reaction to the genetic bottleneck they went through upon leaving Earth—they have been working for generations to add new genetic material to their gene pool. That’s a practical tactic; the cultural result is that while the Combines are xenophobic and guard their wealth zealously, Pirians welcome strangers and see giving aid to others as a virtue.

In contrast, the Combines see giving aid to anyone outside their Houses as foolish and even evil. They do bring outsiders into the House, but only as bonded or contract labor. Both of these classes have limited rights, or in the case of contract labor, no rights at all.

That’s all background, and probably more than you wanted to know. What interested me and caused me to write the books—and the end game I’m heading toward in this series—is what happens when these two very different cultures come into conflict. Fault Lines is an exploration of Combine culture; its sequel, In the Deep, takes us directly into the Combine/Pirian conflict.

Which science fiction writers were you most drawn to in your childhood?

Cherryh is probably the most obvious influence on my Escape Velocity series: her Azis and my Calypsos are very close cousins.

Kelly Jennings

The first science fiction novel I ever read was Have Space Suit—Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein. At that time I was very young and had no money, so while I immediately knew I wanted to read more science fiction, I was limited to books available in my school and public libraries. I read everything with a rocket on its spine (which was how SF was marked in those libraries). This meant Asimov, John Christopher, and Bradbury, as well as A Wrinkle in Time. Later, in my teens, I discovered Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and C.J. Cherryh, all of three of whom were and are an enormous influence on my writing. Cherryh is probably the most obvious influence on my Escape Velocity series: her Azis and my Calypsos are very close cousins.

What about today? Which writers working today impress you the most in terms of their style and their way of creating worlds.

My favorite authors today include Octavia Butler, Eleanor Arnason, Jo Walton, Kage Baker, N. K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, and (still) Cherryh and Le Guin. I’d say Cherryh and Arnason have influenced me most directly, though I want very, very much to write the sorts of worlds and cultures that Butler created. Also N. K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy and Ann Leckie’s work in general—I’d love to be able to write worlds and books like those. Maybe one day.

Libraries were very important for me when I was young as I could access not only fiction, but also non-fiction. Libraries were also places where I would stumble upon new things. How did libraries help you to become a better reader?

Having a wide range of books available to me that I didn’t have to buy was crucial: it allowed me to take chances, to pick up books that I might otherwise not have read, to read widely and diversely.

Kelly Jennings

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, so libraries were my main source of books. My mother took me to our local public library whenever I asked; she liked reading as much as I did. Having a wide range of books available to me that I didn’t have to buy was crucial: it allowed me to take chances, to pick up books that I might otherwise not have read, to read widely and diversely. I remember wandering along the shelves, taking down books at random, reading almost anything that caught my attention. Some of it was pretty awful, but a lot of it was spectacular. Most of it I never would have had access to without public libraries.

Even today, my main source of books is our public library—the librarians there know me by sight. And, just as when I was a kid, having a source of books I can read without having to buy them lets me read things I otherwise couldn’t take a chance on. I can buy more books now than I could have as a kid; but if I had to buy everything I read, my range would much more limited. Right now, for instance, I have stacked up next to me a graphic novel on slave revolts led by women (Wake, by Rebecca Hall); a novel by Nnedi Okorafor; a book by Terry Pratchett; and a book about writing Manga—Manga in Theory and Practice, by Hirohiko Araki. (I am not in the least interested in writing manga, but it’s an interesting book.) Also a cookbook about cooking Thai food. All of these came to me from my public library. It’s no stretch to say public libraries not only made me a writer, but made me the sort of writer I am.

We’ll come back around to Octavia Butler later, but for the moment there’s something she said that I think will resonate:

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.

Octavia Butler

This feels very, very true for Fault Lines and also In the Deep. Which aspects of our human conditions are you exploring with Velocity and Brontë?

As my kid once said, upon reading a literary novel (A Separate Peace, as I recall), ‘This would be so much better if it had dragons in it.’ For me, every story I want to tell is improved by the inclusion of space colonies, spaceships, AI, and genetic engineering.

I spent years trying to write ‘real’ fiction, which meant, to me, literary fiction. This was like trying to write with my creative hands tied behind my back. Only when I returned to my true material, science fiction, did I begin to write work worth reading. As with Butler, yes, writing science fiction gives me the freedom to write about what matters: questions of identity, of humanity, of sexuality, culture, and cultural mores. When I was trying to write literary fiction, I was limited by what Darko Suvin calls the Zero world, the dreariness (for me) of what has actually happened. This meant I was writing facts, but never the truth. Writing in a science fictional universe, paradoxically, I can leave the Zero world behind. I can invent worlds, and through these worlds, find and examine the truth in this world.

Ikeda House and the Combines are amazing creations. When did you first start to think about them, and did they come first, and then the story; or vice versa?

Just over two years ago, my partner and I moved into a new house. (A new old house.) It’s much smaller than the house we were renting before, and so we had to rid ourselves of about half of our possessions. All of this is to say that, while clearing out the old house, I found my very first laptop, and on the laptop, I found a novel I had written when I was in my mid-20s.

[…] I’ve been thinking about this universe a long time—it’s been lurking down there in the basement of my mind, so to speak, for decades.

Kelly Jennings

Before recovering that novel, I would have sworn I made up the Combines and all the rest of it when I wrote my novel Broken Slate (published by Crossed Genres in 2011). Yet in that (terrible) early novel, my main character is an anthropologist who is studying the Combines. The Pirians even get a mention, though I don’t say much about them. So apparently I’ve been thinking about this universe a long time—it’s been lurking down there in the basement of my mind, so to speak, for decades.

The action of these two novels takes place in space, in orbit, and on the surface of a brilliant world. It is masterful world building. How did you set about creating the world of these two books, and is there a lot more of it which you have planned out for future stories?

The Combine/Pirian universe, as I’ve conceived of it, has three main cultures: The Combine Houses in the Republic; the Drift, inhabited by ‘free trade’ merchant ships, pirates, and anarchists; and Pirian space. Each of these cultures has subcultures, and it is (mainly) the subcultures that interest me. People who live in interstitial spaces—like Velocity and her crew—are always those who both see and reveal their worlds most clearly.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and researching how cultures on space stations and on exoplanets might work, and especially what problems such cultures might have obtaining supplies and labor, as well as staying viable. Much of my published science fiction, including all three novels and several of my short stories, have been set in the same universe as Fault Lines and In the Deep. For those who are interested, I can recommend especially ‘Little Bird’ (in Retellings of the Inland Seas), ‘What Happened to Lord Elomar during the Revolution’, and ‘In the Cold’.

Short answer: I haven’t yet even begun to exhaust the possibilities of this universe, so yes, I have a lot more planned!

Moving to the mechanics of your writing, do you draft longhand, or on screen? And do you edit as you go, correcting and finessing scene by scene, or all at once at the end of big blocks?

As a young writer, I wrote multiple drafts of everything on typewriters; but when I was in my twenties, I got my first laptop (second-hand, given to me by my future father-in-law) and since then I have always written directly on the screen.

I write multiple drafts—first, multiple drafts of each chapter in separate documents; and then once I have compiled all these chapters into a single document, multiple drafts of that document. But I also revise as I go—each morning, that is, before I begin writing new material, I read through and revise yesterday’s work. Writing is revision, at least for me.

I’m also a pantser, as I mention above. I’m not sure I’d recommend this method to young writers, but it’s the way that works for me.

Athena Andreadis is a brilliant editor, and at Candlemark and Gleam you are in excellent company. How has working with Andreadis changed the way you write, and the way you think about science fiction?

[Athena Andreadis] was the first editor to point out to me that I was still writing the sort of science fiction I had picked up from the writers of my childhood […]

Kelly Jennings

Athena has changed the way I think about science fiction in every possible way. She was the first editor to point out to me that I was still writing the sort of science fiction I had picked up from the writers of my childhood—that is to say, in my stories, men were actors, and women (if they existed at all) existed to be acted upon. This was a bitter pill for me, since I had thought I was writing feminist fiction, but she was absolutely right. That shift in how I thought about worlds, and about fiction, and about characters, made everything I was writing about ten times more interesting, and much more fun to write besides.

Athena is also stellar at putting her finger on exactly where my fiction has gone wrong. Her editing notes and overall advice always take my work to the next level.

What other Candlemark and Gleam titles are you looking forward to reading?

Jo Graham is one of my favorite writers, so I was delighted when I saw Candlemark and Gleam was publishing a trilogy by her. I’ve already read the first book, Sounding Dark, which is wonderful. Everything by Melissa Scott, of course. Robin Shortt wrote one of my very favorite books, Wellside, so anything he publishes, I am buying. Same for Leonard Richardson, who wrote the amazing Situation Normal.

I enjoyed your review of Melissa Scott’s The Water Horse, and your insights were fascinating. That is a novel that is absolutely on my to-get list. Does reviewing novels reveal things which inform or enrich your own creative process? Or are your fiction and non-fiction powered by different engines?

I am currently writing reviews for Strange Horizons and for Asimov’s, and as I often tell my partner, I would do it for the free books alone. But yes, reviewing books causes me to look closely at a book’s structure and how different writers build character, theme, and story. That’s been very useful to my own craft.

That is, read a lot, and think about what you’re reading—what it means, yes, but also how it is put together, how the tropes work, what other works this work is in a conversation with […]

Kelly Jennings

It’s my belief that writers can’t write unless they also read, widely and critically. That is, read a lot, and think about what you’re reading—what it means, yes, but also how it is put together, how the tropes work, what other works this work is in a conversation with (text and context, right?). The biggest problem I see in the young writers I work with is that they aren’t reading enough. That’s like trying to be a musician without listening to music. Impossible. Also, The Water Horse is brilliant. Everyone should read that one.

Earlier you talked about writing science fiction as a way of finding and examining ‘the truth in this world’, and that seems like a way to link back to Octavia Butler, your choice of desert island special category. When did you first encounter Octavia Butler’s works, and which truths have they helped you to see most clearly?

When I was in graduate school, working on my MFA, we were all given a mimeographed list of about a hundred books to read, things like Absalom, Absalom and Sister Carrie and The Ambassadors. Well, I am as obsessive as the next overachiever, so I plowed my way through that list. But aside from reading those books, I also visited the local public library once or twice a week, bringing home stacks of what I thought of as ‘real’ books. (I remember saying exactly that to one of my professors, who asked why I was going to the public library, in tones of befuddlement. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘you know, real books.’) One of these books was Octavia Butler’s Imago, which just blew me away. It’s the third book in her Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and deals with the central concern on her fiction—how we build better cultures by bringing everyone to the table, and how even the best of us will sometimes resist that truth. (That is not all the novel is about, by any means.) The novel also shows why people resist change, even when that change is the better path. These people aren’t villains—Butler’s work almost never has villains—but they are wrong, and she shows us exactly why and where they go wrong, while making sure we understand why they believe they are right.

You told me that Fledgling is your absolute favourite. How would it sustain you, the hypothetical castaway?

Fledgling is such an amazing book. I’ve read it probably a dozen times, and taught it twice, and I am still learning new things whenever I return to it.

[…] Butler’s aliens are never monsters (though they are often seen as monsters by people in the narrative).

Kelly Jennings

Like much of Butler’s work, it focuses alien/human interactions. (The Ina, the ‘vampires’ of this novel, may or may not be actual aliens. They’re certainly not human.) Alien is clearly being used metaphorically, as it often is in science fiction; but unlike in—say—The War of the Worlds, or the movie Alien (which I love to pieces, by the way), Butler’s aliens are never monsters (though they are often seen as monsters by people in the narrative).

And, like much of Butler’s work, the story concerns a child who lives in that space between human and alien culture. That child is always—in Butler—an improvement on her parent cultures. Here, we have Shori, who has been genetically engineered, using (black) human DNA and Ina DNA. Shori is the better direction Ina culture needs to go in. Her genes allow the vampiric race to function in daylight. But because she’s ‘a mongrel,’ as some of the Ina put it, she is hated and feared.

Butler’s use of ‘monsters’ is fascinating. I mean, in a lot of ways, Shori is monstrous—in the first few pages of the book, she kills and devours a human who had been one of her protectors. She’s in her fifties, but looks like she’s ten or eleven. She compels the humans who come to her aid to become her symbiotes—slaves, not to put too fine a point on it. She also has sex with these symbiotes, all adult humans. This last makes us very uneasy, given that Shori appears to be a human child and actually is an Ina child (Ina age slowly).

However, Butler presents all this in such a way that we keep forgetting how monstrous it is. We’re on Shori’s side, throughout the book. And much of what Shori does is objectively horrific. Doesn’t that mean we’re on the side of a monster? What does that mean, about us, about ethics, about human communities? About free will? I’m not sure anyone in Fledgling is acting out of free will. Shori clearly is not, and her symbiotes, once they’re captured by her, cannot. Here, the use of alien as metaphor becomes very instructive: what’s Butler saying about human relationships? About free will in biological creatures? We have to eat, to breathe, to drink, we are driven by our hormones to bond with those around us, and to want sex and to enjoy certain sensations while hating others—how much of what we do is a free will choice? Is anything? If we are slaves of chemicals and biology, how are we different from Shori herself?

Well, I could go on for pages. I’ll stop there.

‘Bloodchild’ is many things: a love story, the story of a person coming to age, an exploration of how humans come to coexist with aliens on a planet other their our own, and more besides. Those thematic layers make it a fine choice, I think. What keeps bringing you back to this one?

It’s really the perfect Butler story: the human/alien cultural interaction; the objectively monstrous aliens who in the story don’t seem like monsters; the lack of free will due to biological/chemical restraints; and the child coming up in the space between these two cultures who has the ability to make a new, and better, culture out of both the worlds that created him. Also, hot alien sex. I don’t know how Butler does it, but she manages to write alien/human sex scenes that, although they should be appalling (sex with a giant bug?!) are nevertheless deeply erotic.

Butler stated that one of the reasons she wrote ‘Bloodchild’ was that she was planning a trip to South America and was afraid of how botflies would lay their eggs inside open wounds; so the story, and the very vivid imagery of the story, was a way for her to process, to write away, what she found horrifying. Are there fears, or anxieties, that you’ve written about, or want to write about, as a way of dealing with them?

Oh, good question. Also one I find myself reluctant to answer. I suppose deep-seated fears are deeply disquieting. Hm.

One main thread that runs through my work, I think, is the abuse of power, and the way in which those with power seek to force the powerless to not just accept, but to participate in this abuse. It’s not enough that we’re serfs to the hyper-wealthy—we have to celebrate our serfdom. We’re forced into this by not just physical abuse but emotional manipulation. We are compelled to love our oppressors.

That abuse of power, and how it is often entangled with need and love and desire, is one I can’t stop writing about.

Kelly Jennings

In Fault Lines, for instance, Sabra says at one point that she owes everything in her life to Isra Ikeda Lopaka (Brontë’s mother); that Isra pulled her out of poverty and made her who she is; and in In the Deep, Adder says something similar—that Brontë is why she was created, is the reason for every bite of food Adder has ever been given. Both of these characters know they have been conscripted into slavery, but both have been so thoroughly inculcated that they can’t keep from believing that their oppression is justified.

That abuse of power, and how it is often entangled with need and love and desire, is one I can’t stop writing about.

‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ is a potent novelette about illness, genetics, and the idea, in Butler’s own words, of how people suffer from the delusion of being ‘imprisoned within their own flesh’. What was your first reaction to the story?

I’ve read and taught this one so many times I’m not sure I’m able to remember my first reaction. Like Fledgling, though, and like so much of Butler’s work, this one is about biology and control. The main character in this one, Lynn, can use her pheromones to control the people around her—is she abrogating their free will? Or can they still make choices? Can she make choices? (After all, those pheromones aren’t under her conscious control.) She lives in a body, as we all do, but how much control does she have over that body?

The world that will be built by Lynn and those like her is a better one than the world as it was. Without Lynn, her fellow DGD sufferers—people with a disease that compels them to self-harm to the point of maiming and death—would live short, miserable, painful lives. Lynn’s control keeps them sane. This is a good change, in other words. But it’s not one Lynn or her ‘hive’ has chosen—they can acquiesce, or they can die horribly. That’s not a real choice.

Notice that it’s much the same choice we have here in the real world, compelled as we are by biology to need shelter, food, companions. It’s a better world with pizza, buddies, and a nice place to live, certainly. But still.

When you teach that story, what is the range of reactions you get from students?

My students love this story. When I teach Butler, this one is their absolute favorite. I’m not sure why—maybe because it features a heterosexual love story, where no one in the story is a bug? Or maybe because it has a (mostly) happy ending?

One of my students who has a chronic illness really related to [the sense that the body isn’t the self], and as a cancer survivor, I do too.

Kelly Jennings

They also like the details about the disease itself, DGD, especially the genetic elements and the sense that the body isn’t the self—about being trapped in your own flesh. One of my students who has a chronic illness really related to that, and as a cancer survivor, I do too. I remember thinking that it was my body that was dying; that if I could just escape my body, I would be fine. I think my trans students also respond strongly to that aspect of the story; but in a sense we’re all trapped in these bodies, aren’t we? Bodies we honestly don’t have much control over, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.

Your fourth choice is Octavia Butler’s Imago. How has that novel, and the trilogy as a whole, changed you (and maybe your writing)?

I’m fascinated by that, the crux of human life—how much choice do we truly have?

Kelly Jennings

The main character of Imago, Jodahs, is utterly charming, and utterly controlled by their biology. (Jodahs is neither male nor female, but ooli, the third Oankali sex.) Like Lynn in ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’, Jodahs can also control others with their biology. Jodahs can and does make the choice to control others; but again, how much of this is a true choice? Jodahs is an ooli, if they don’t capture others (as it were) with their abilities, they die.

I’m fascinated by that, the crux of human life—how much choice do we truly have? I’m female, I’m heterosexual, I’m cisgendered, I love books and words and languages, I like coffee and snow and solving puzzles: how much of that did I choose? Did I choose any of it? (Maybe the coffee. Coffee is delicious.) I love the people in my life—was that a choice?

These are disturbing questions, and questions, it seems to me, that science fiction can better explore than any other genre. Butler raises—and deals with—these questions in a way that has been an enormous influence on my own work.

Butler wrote that she wanted to ‘change [human] males enough so that the hierarchical behavior would no longer be a big problem.’ What ‘Zero world’ problems are you trying to engage with in your own writing?

Because we are biological creatures, subject to our biology and the limits of that biology, and because we live in an imperfect world, the things we do that are good are often also harmful.

Kelly Jennings

I’m fascinated with power structures, as I think Butler was too. Hierarchy was her specific fascination; mine in the ways in which power can be used constructively and destructively, sometimes at the same time. We need to have power if we are to make anything useful or good happen in the world—I have power as a professor, for instance, over the lives of my students; doctors have power in their patients; Elon Musk has the power that wealth brings. Because we are biological creatures, subject to our biology and the limits of that biology, and because we live in an imperfect world, the things we do that are good are often also harmful. For instance, I love books, and I love chocolate, and I love computers, but you don’t get any of these without doing harm to the environment and to other humans. ‘No ethical consumption under capitalism,’ as the saying goes, but actually no ethical consumption ever.

How can we act without doing harm? That’s probably not possible, but can we do less harm? Can we take care of one another without exploiting one another? Is that possible? I don’t know, but once again, I think science fiction is the best genre for exploring such questions.

Would you say you’re an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the ability of art to influence human behaviour? Or phrased another way, do you feel optimistic about how the dialogues science fiction (particularly big idea science fiction like your own, and like Octavia Butler’s) has with the future can positively affect the real future of our own world?

You know, I’m like Mulder. I want to believe.

I do think art has and can change human behavior, and that science fiction especially can do this. Science fiction shows us other ways we can live, and makes us re-examine what we believe. It can encourage us to live an examined life, in other words, and encourage us to act differently. As I have often told my kid (who is trans and bisexual), when I was coming up, LGBT people were subject to constant abuse, ridicule, and legal discrimination—I remember a high school field trip, to a court in New Orleans, where I grew up, in which one gay man after the next was arraigned before the judge for ‘crimes against nature.’ That’s a world as alien now as anything Butler wrote, and the change happened, I would argue, due in a large part to the books, films, and television shows that showed us positive LGBT characters.

That’s only one aspect of our culture which has been changed by art. So I do think art can have a real and positive effect on the world. (It can also have a negative effect, clearly.) And I would like to be optimistic, to believe that the arc of history bends toward justice. It’s a little harder to believe that at the moment, I’ll admit.

In an interview Octavia Butler did with Janice Bogstad, Butler mentions how there was an almost complete version of Mind of my Mind which was told entirely in the first person, but she left it in a department store, Bullocks, in Los Angeles, and she never saw that manuscript again. She then wrote it again and ended up with a better book. Have you ever lost words, or plans, to a mishap?

Due to various events, I have almost nothing that I wrote before I was 30. I think this is a good thing, though. No one needs to see my old work—as I mentioned above, I recently found a novel I wrote in my twenties, and as interesting as that is to me personally, to see the seeds of my work in their inchoate form, it’s not something I want to impose on the world. Also, I really like the version of Mind of My Mind that we have, so I can’t be too upset, except in a scholarly sense, that the earlier version was lost.

This sounds like I’m saying everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds, but I am definitely not saying that. I’d very much like to have been a better writer in my twenties, and to have written amazing novels back then. However, my father, who worked on fuel tanks for the Apollo missions and on the lunar rover, taught me two things: Never buy a car from a parking lot; and you can’t saw sawdust. This second saying has been the most useful to me. This might not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the one we have to live in.

What do you like about Mind of my Mind, and why is it your fifth and final choice?

Mind of My Mind deals with the central concern of my own work—questions of power. We see Mary go from being controlled and abused by Doro, in his quest to create his own sort of human; we know from Wild Seed the sort of abuse he has visited on his ‘breeding stock’ in earlier centuries; and so we want Mary to succeed. That is, we want her to use her own power in a useful way, and to defeat Doro. Yet we also see what happens when she does use that power: she creates a system that is even more abusive. Is there some way to hold and use power and not create abusive systems? It’s my perennial question.

In that interview, Butler talks about how in a lot of science fiction, people with power are either ‘idealistic and good’ or ‘villanous and rotten and evil’, and she wanted to have characters who were ‘fairly ordinary’ and see what they did with power. In your work there is much about hierachies and power dynamics. Who do you see as the most ordinary of your powerful characters?

That would probably be a toss-up between Velocity and Brontë—probably Brontë, I suspect. Velocity surrenders her power. She walks away from the Combines, and refuses to be drawn back into them. She still has power, as the Captain of her ship and the leader of her crew, but it’s a very limited sort of power, which she works hard not to abuse.

Brontë, on the other hand, is going to be my Mary. In the first book of the series, because she’s a child, she seems harmless and sort of cute. Like a baby tiger.

But by the second book, In the Deep, she’s starting to use the power she has as a Combine heir. In the third book, her control of that power will become more overt. She has a clear aim, and it’s one we can understand and even agree with: the Combines hold enormous power, and in wielding that power, they do enormous harm. She wants that harm stopped. But even when we work toward what seems to be good ends—as Mary was, in Mind of My Mind—can we wield power without doing harm?

I’d like to be optimistic about that, since we can’t change anything without using power, but I don’t know that I am optimistic. Velocity’s path—to refuse to take power—seems the only feasible one to me, yet it’s also clear that her path abandons billions to the abusive system. This is encapsulated in the way she abandoned her own sister, leaving Alice to die under the Combine system as it currently exists.

Finally, after readers have devoured Fault Lines and In the Deep, what should they look out for next from you? What hints can you give about future voyages through this world?

Honestly, I write a chapter at a time. If I know what’s going to happen in the next few pages, I’m happy. This is not the best way of writing: it means a lot of revision, a lot of cutting, a lot of rethinking during the second draft. So while I kind of know where the series is going (big revolution instigated by the Pirians which will change how the Combine Houses operate, and Brontë as a main agent of that change) I have only wispy notions about how we get there. I can tell you that the next novel in the series focuses more on Brontë and Adder, along with the instigator of the coup that kicked the series off in Fault Lines.

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