Interview with Melissa Scott (FINDERS)
Melissa Scott is an award-winning author whose work spans epic Fantasy, cyberpunk, space opera and steampunk. She has been writing speculative fiction about LGBT characters since the 1980s. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1986, and her classic cyberpunk novel Trouble And Her Friends (1994) won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay & Lesbian Science Fiction and Fantasy, as did her space opera Shadow Man (1996). Her latest novel Finders, the first novel in the Firstborn, Lastborn series, is a wonderful character-driven yet epic space opera, and came out with Candlemark & Gleam at the end of last year.
Melissa Scott was kind enough to speak with the Fantasy Hive via email about her writing and her career.
Your latest novel Finders is out now with Candlemark & Gleam. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Cassilde Sam is a barely solvent salvage operator, hunting for relics in the ruins left by the mysterious Ancestors—particularly the color-coded Elements that power most of humanity’s current technology, including the ability to navigate through hyperspace. Cassilde is also steadily fading under the onslaught of Lightman’s, an incurable, inevitably fatal disease. She needs one last find big enough to leave a legacy for her partner and fellow salvor Dai Winter.
When their lover and former colleague Summerlad Ashe reappears, offering them a chance to salvage part of an orbiting palace that he claims contains potentially immense riches, Cassilde is desperate enough to take the gamble, even though Ashe had left them both to fight on the opposite side of the interplanetary war that only ended seven years ago. The find is everything Ashe promised. But when pirates attack the claim, Cassilde receives the rarest of the Ancestors’ Gifts: a change to her biochemistry that confers near-instant healing and seems to promise immortality.
But the change also drags her into an underworld where Gifts are traded in blood, and powerful Gifts bring equally powerful enemies. Hunted for her Gift and determined to find Gifts for her lovers, Cassilde discovers that an old enemy is searching for the greatest of the Ancestral artifacts: the power that the Ancestors created and were able to barely contain after it almost destroyed them, plunging humanity into the first Long Dark. Haunted by dream-visions of this power whispering its own version of what happened, Cassilde must find it first, before her enemy frees it to destroy her own civilization.
The protagonist of Finders, Cassilde Sam, has a fatal disease. How did you find writing about a character suffering from a chronic illness in a science fictional setting?
It’s always awkward writing someone with a chronic and fatal disease, particularly when that disease is cured over the course of the story — it’s very easy to make the cure costless and without consequence, so that the illness feels like a cheap plea for sympathy and the cure feels like cheating, and I was very conscious of that trope as I was writing. I will admit that a miracle cure has deep personal resonance for me: my partner, Lisa Barnett, died of cancer more than ten years ago, and I would have given anything to save her. But I think that experience of loss changes how I handled the situation. Since Lisa died, I have had a recurring dream in which somehow she is alive, and I am having to justify everything that had happened while she was dead — why did I sell our house, why did I move out of New England, why did I take that job, why did I write that book, why am I seeing someone else — and the only answer, in the dream, is “but you were dead.” (I understand this is not that uncommon, as a few of my friends have admitting having similar dreams about lost parents, but it’s weird and uncomfortable and apparently will never go away.)
That’s the piece that I have taken as a touchstone for writing Cassilde’s illness and cure: no matter how good things are, no matter how solid the cure seems to be, she cannot erase the time that she spent knowing she was going to die. She turned most of her worries outward, focused on providing for her partner Dai, because that’s the sort of person she is, but that time can never not have happened. She may in fact be functionally immortal, but she can never not know what it felt like to be dying. And yet she must — indeed, all three of them must — go on.
The novel centres on the relationship between Cassilde, her partner Dai Winter, and their lover Summerlad Ashe. Was this a fun relationship to write?
I really enjoyed writing them. I liked all three characters a lot (and identified with parts of all of their characters), and I enjoyed writing about the relationship coming back together after a break up, reforming into a slightly different and perhaps more stable configuration. I liked the messy complexity, and I liked working out the very different ways that Cassilde and Dai came to the decision to let Ashe back into their lives. One of the interesting parts of writing a triad relationship for me was balancing the individual relationships within the overall relationship – the relationships between Cassilde and Dai, Dai and Ashe, Ashe and Cassilde are all different, and are different from the relationship among all three of them. And technically, because Finders is told in close 3rd person, I had to filter all of those through Cassilde’s perspective and understanding while still (I hope) making clear that the other characters don’t necessarily see things the same way.
The characters from Finders first appeared in a short story. When did you realise these characters had a larger story to tell?
I knew almost from the beginning that the story wanted to be a novel, and it was a struggle to keep the short story contained enough to fit in the 10,000 word limit of the anthology. It was very much like trying to stuff an octopus into a tin can: there were lots of waving tentacles, and a whole lot of spilled ink. Fortunately, Athena Andreadis is a rigorous and compassionate editor, and helped me keep the short story within bounds, but I cannot tell you how glorious it felt to begin the novel and let what had been the short story expand to its proper length. The section that had been the short story almost doubled in length, and I finally felt as though I, and it, had room to breathe.
Finders is book one in the Firstborn, Lastborn series. What can we expect from the sequels?
There are two books that move backward in time from Finders, and then there is a direct sequel; I’m honestly not sure at this point which one I’m going to tackle next. The direct sequel has the working title of Keepers, with Cassilde, Dai, and Ashe finishing dealing with the AI who were left at the end of that book.
Fallen jumps back in time to the Successor era, and explores the creation of the Gifts in the wake of the AI War. Gueninen Mur is a prime example of what the third-born Facienda have made of themselves in the years after the collapse of the Omphalos; the Gift fills her blood and allows her to interact with Callambhal Above and with the starships that travel between the high cities, dodging the trapped AI. But the Gift-maker Rejane Novilis has apparently joined one of Callambhal’s rivals, and Mur is sent to retrieve her or kill her — or to find a way to save them both.
Firstborn jumps back yet again, this time to the Ancestors themselves, and tells the real story of Anketil and Irtholin, the Dedalor, and their treachery that unleashed the AI War. It’s based on another story, “Firstborn, Lastborn,” that appeared in Athena Andreadis’s anthology To Shape the Dark (2016), and right now it’s at the “extremely sprawling plot” stage.
You won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1986 following the release of Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985), the first Silence Leigh novel. What was that like?
More than a little surreal, to be honest! I had actually never been to the Hugos before, because Lisa and I usually took the Hugo night as a chance to go out for a fancy dinner. I figured my odds were about 30/70, at best 50/50, so I bought an inexpensive new dress, figured out a few things I could say, and went to the awards ceremony hoping the Campbell would not be the first award given because I had no idea how the evening was supposed to go. And then I won. I managed to accept the plaque without dropping it, thanked everyone I needed to thank, and didn’t fall over getting off the stage again, which was, I felt, an accomplishment. After the ceremony, we went to a bunch of parties, and I was so wired I couldn’t sleep, so I found myself sharing a bottle of champagne at 3 in the morning while riding the incredibly SFnal elevators in the Atlanta Marriott with Lisa and her brother and fellow writer Don Sakers.
In Trouble And Her Friends, you depict cyberspace as a space where queer culture can flourish, until the net becomes regulated by the government and big corporations. How do you feel about how this has been mirrored in the real world evolution of the internet?
I think it has been mirrored to some extent, though in Trouble the queer characters are the ones who meet in real life, who are embodied and embedded in the non-virtual as much as they are in the virtual. That embodiment is one of their strengths, and the real-life connections are something they can use against the people who are able to disappear into the net because they are not stigmatized as queer or not white or not male. While I’m a big fan of online communities, I think there’s a lot to be said for experiencing the reality of one’s friends — of meeting in the flesh, of being a part of a community that isn’t mediated by a screen and typing and cute memes. I’m not sure that the thing keeping communities from flourishing online is the government or big corporations regulating things; I can’t help thinking it’s also the social norms that we’ve allowed to evolve in those spaces.
Trouble And Her Friends was the first of your novels to win the Lambda Literary Award for Gay & Lesbian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Can you tell us a bit about that?
One of the nice things about the Lammies is that they have recognized genre fiction from the beginning. This was particularly exciting in the ‘80s and ‘90s when mainstream SF was not as comfortable with LGBT+ themes and characters, and literary fiction was less comfortable with SF/F themes. I’d been nominated for several books before Trouble (Mighty Good Road (1990), Dreamships (1992), and Burning Bright (1993)), in one strong year after another – the winners in the years I was nominated were works like Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe (1990), Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (1992), and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993). Trouble was up against Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Furies, Nancy Springer’s Metal Angel, Mercedes Lackey’s Storm Warning, and Jean Stewart’s Warriors of Isis (all 1994), and I was really proud to have Trouble was recognized in that company.
At that point, Trouble was definitely the best thing I’d written, and it was also the first book to get any traction outside the SF/F community. It was my first book to be widely carried in lesbian/women’s and gay bookstores, and I did a number of readings for audiences who were not at all familiar with SF/F, never mind cyberpunk, which involved finding ways to make the genre seem not scary or too hard. A couple of the bookstores were clearly the only place that lesbians had to get together in their areas, so it didn’t really matter what the book was, or who was reading, and it made me really want to give them a good time — to bring something to their community in exchange for welcoming me.
Night Sky Mine (1997) explores the interface between humanity and cyberspace through programmes that take the shape of nature and mythological beings. What does our relationship with nature and mythology tell us about our relationship to the internet?
I’ve always been extremely interested in how people conceptualize new technologies — I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the models early modern tacticians used to understand how to use the new gunpowder weapons, particularly the musket, and how those models carried inappropriate baggage even as they provided useful scaffolding. Almost from the beginning, people imagined “the internet” as a place (rather than as, say, an intricately conjoined text, or a conversation, or symphony, all of which could, I think, provide equally useful metaphors). They also described programming in magical terms: that person is a coding wizard, we will write a daemon to get that done, industry leaders are gods and demigods. My feeling is that this both describes how it feels to use the internet — most of us aren’t programmers, and we point and click on magic words to get things done — and shapes how we think about it. I’m not sure that the major players in the big tech companies would have the same social power if they weren’t perceived as some kind of sorcerers whose secrets can’t be understood by ordinary folk. People claim to not understand smart phones or Facebook in the same tone that they would reject understanding magic, and for the same reasons: it is arcane and occult and not meant for mere mortals.
Night Sky Mine was a way of imagining new metaphors — in this case, programs complex enough to behave like living organisms — and looking at the consequences of those metaphors.
You returned to cyberpunk ideas and themes in The Jazz (2000). What are the differences in writing cyberpunk fiction in the 00’s versus the 90’s?
I think the biggest differences were that by the time I was writing The Jazz, the internet wasn’t a specialist’s playground. It was the web, and everybody was using it. Simply being present on the web didn’t imply any kind of mastery of anything, whereas in the 80s and 90s, it took a certain amount of technical savvy just to find a bulletin board. The Jazz isn’t about hackers, or not about the kind of hackers who manipulate code, like the characters in Trouble. People in The Jazz manipulate information instead, and my one regret is that I didn’t push that nearly far enough — I saw it as far more benign than the creation of false news has turned out to be.
Shadow Man uses space opera and cyberpunk tropes to explore non-binary gender. Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?
I stumbled across an article by Anne Fausto-Sterling that talked about intersexuality, and was intrigued by the rather broad taxonomy she laid out in making an argument for recognizing more than two genders. I went back to some of her sources, particularly a study of intersex people done in the 1920s and 30s — before plastic surgery was an option — and found that an awful lot of the interview subjects were perfectly happy with their bodies and their lives and had no interest in changing themselves in any way. I had also acquired Martine Rothblatt’s The Apartheid of Sex (1995), which argues for removing gender entirely as a social category, and instead only dividing people when necessary — for example, sports would be divided by height and weight classes rather than by physical sex. All of these are now thoroughly outdated — as is Shadow Man itself, in some ways —but at the time, these were cutting edge ideas.
The Kindly Ones (1987) explores ideas from Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy to ask questions about society and dispossession. What led to the idea to mix Space Opera and Ancient Greek tragedy?
One of the things that I really like about space opera is that at its best it often has a strong mythic element — it uses science to generate the same sense of awe and immensity that the best myths carry. So when I was thinking about a story that involved social “death” as a punishment for most crimes, it was very easy to look to the Oresteia, which is also about crimes and punishments. And the euphemistic title — the Kindly Ones are of course really the Furies — fit the society that I was building, where tremendous violence was building behind a rigid code of polite behavior.
The Dreamships trilogy explores the emergence of artificial intelligence and the fight for their recognition as beings with rights instead of property. What makes science fiction an effective genre for exploring issues like these?
I think it’s really the only kind of fiction that lets you look at this kind of speculative issue, because you’re free to set the parameters of the world and the changes that have taken place within it. There had been quite a few stories that dealt with AI rights (and, even earlier, the rights of apes genetically altered to be intelligent), and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of debate left there. I think we have a vague consensus that beings that cross certain threshold generally defined by intelligence ought to count as people, though as in all things the details and the exact definitions and the location of the threshold have been and will be furiously debated. But what really interested me with Dreamships (1992) and Dreaming Metal (1997) was what to do with AI — genuine AI, an obvious person — in a world where some human beings — who are also unquestionably people — do not have the rights that would be granted to the AI. That, I think, is a source of fascinating social tension, and certainly of useful plot.
You have written science fiction and fantasy stories with LGBT characters since the 1980’s. Has the genre improved in terms of representation and acceptance for LGBT writers and stories over the time you have been writing?
It’s been more of a roller-coaster ride than straightforward improvement. Beginning in the late 1980s and going through the 1990s, there was a tremendous increase in LGBT representation/acceptance in SF/F, both from the mainstream publishers and from the small presses. If you look at the Lammies for that decade, you’ll see just how much was being published and by who, and you’ll see a number of names who have sadly been dropped by their publishers and/or have moved on to other subgenera or even out of SF/F altogether.
Everything seemed to change around 2001. Titles that had been modestly profitable were no longer making good enough margins and went out of print rather than remaining available as backlist, and publishers seemed to be looking for books that would appeal to the widest possible audience. That seemed to rule out a lot of non-majority voices, and the ones that were picked up were telling stories that were already familiar to mainstream audiences.
It seems to me that changed again around, oh, 2012? 2013? Readers, particularly in YA, were asking for more diverse books, and publishers responded; with the rise of ebooks, it also became possible for small and indie presses to publish LGBT+ themed work without needing to make the same profits as the mainstream houses. Ebooks also meant that you didn’t need to be out to buy or read LGBT books — you could get them off the internet, and no one need be the wiser. I think all of these things combined to create another wave of LGBT SF/F, and I’m hopeful it will be better able to sustain the momentum
Your work ranges across genres, from Space Opera mixed with cyberpunk to Fantasy mixed with Steampunk. Do you see genre more as a toolbox than a particular style, and how do you feel your work relates to genre fiction in general?
I do see genre as a toolbox. As a writer, I’m most interested in choices and consequences, and I want to see them play out on both societal and personal levels. SF/F is the genre that most effectively addresses those questions. Each of the subgenera is better at addressing different aspects of those questions — I talked above about using cyberpunk to explore the unintended consequences of metaphor, and Trouble does the same thing with the metaphor of the internet as Wild West. Steampunk is great for looking at the consequences and choices afforded to people who have one kind of power, but not another, space opera is perfect for looking at the aftermath of technological innovation, and so on.
In addition to writing, you’ve also edited the collections Heireses of Russ 2014: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, celebrating the influence of Joanna Russ, and Jaelle Her Book: A Memorial (2013), in memory of Judy Gerjuoy and Darkovercon. What was your experience of editing these collections like, and can you tell us a bit about the influence of both of these women on your writing?
With Heiresses of Russ 2014, I was able to work with Steve Berman at Lethe Press to collect an amazing range of stories to consider. One of the delights of this project was discovering just how much good lesbian SF/F there was out there, and it was incredibly difficult to narrow the volume down to the stories chosen. Jaelle was an entirely different project, a book put together with Don Sakers after the death of Judy Gerjuoy, who had been the chair of Darkovercon for many years. She was a good friend, and ran a great convention, and we wanted to put together something that the other people who had loved her and Darkovercon could remember her by. So it’s a very different impulse, and a much smaller, more private set of stories.
As far as influences, I can’t imagine there are any writers my age who haven’t been influenced by Joanna Russ. She’s one of the titans of her day, both as a writer and a critic, and I find her ideas fruitful forty years on. Judy was, as I said, the person who ran Darkovercon from its inception. It was a small convention, deliberately so, focused on the Darkover books, and Judy worked hard from the beginning to make it an inclusive and welcoming space not just for LGBT fans but for everyone. She did it because that was the sort of world she wanted to live in, and this was one place she could make it happen; she was always willing to listen, to change when she thought it was necessary, and to hold fast when she thought that was right. I miss her still.
As well as writing solo novels, you’ve also written the Order of the Air series with Jo Graham, the first two Astreiant books with Lisa A. Barnett, and the Julian Lynes and Ned Matthey books with Amy Griswold. What are the differences between writing in collaboration and writing solo?
The good thing about collaboration is that you have someone else to work with — someone to brainstorm with, someone to tease out the problems when a scene isn’t quite working, someone to chortle gleefully with you when you’ve nailed a scene. The difficult thing about collaboration is that you have someone else you’re working with — that you have to agree on all of your choices, and you have to have a mechanism for resolving issues when you don’t agree. In all three of these cases, it’s been really important to have a solid outline for the story before we start writing, and to discuss any potential changes really early on. I have a bad habit, in my solo work, of considering drastic and dramatic changes all through the writing process, and you really can’t do that when you’re working with somebody else. I also find that the actual writing tends to go faster, because you have the chance to get into a positive feedback loop. I’ve never actually written side-by-side with any of my collaborators; we’ve always picked scenes, written them, and passed them back and forth for comment. When that gets going well, you have the chance to respond to what the other person has written, to build on what they’ve done, and then they build on what you’ve done. And there’s always the chance that if one of you gets stuck, the other person can keep going and produce something that propels you forward again. Of course, if both of you get stuck at once, that’s a lot less fun…
You’ve also written tie-in novels for Star Trek and Stargate. How does this differ from writing your original novels?
The biggest difference, of course, is that every part of a tie-in novel has to be approved by the franchise owner. In practice, that means that they receive a detailed outline which can’t be changed without further approval, and that the completed manuscript is then reviewed again to be sure it still meets with their approval. It also means that you’re working to serve someone else’s universe – and not a fannish revision of that universe, but the canonical version, the version that the show’s creators believe in. In practice, that’s means it’s much harder to include queer characters (though that has gotten easier over time; MGM let us include a minor lesbian character in the Legacy series), and it’s often not possible to change anything permanently. At the end of most tie-ins, the characters and situations must be returned to the show’s status quo so that the book doesn’t in any way step on the show-runners’ plans. The Stargate: Atlantis Legacy books were an exception to that, but the show had been cancelled by the time we proposed the series, and we were explicitly permitted to move forward with a virtual sixth season. Frankly, I never expected to be allowed to do that, and I’m really grateful that MGM let us take over so much of the sandbox.
What’s next for Melissa Scott?
Right now, I’m finishing up an f/f romance game, A Player’s Heart, which will be coming out later this year from Choice of Game’s new Heart’s Choice line. It’s set in an all-female theater in the river-mouth city of Tristendedande; players choose to play as either a deva (player of women’s roles), a dragon (player of men’s roles), or an artifex (a theater technician), and seek romance while dealing with stagecraft and politics. It’s been a lot of fun to work on.
I’m also almost done with an epic fantasy, Water Horse, about the queer trickster king of a beleaguered kingdom who is determined to twist even his prophesied fate to save his people.
After that, I’ll work on either Fallen or Keepers — I need to have a long conversation with Athena about that — and Jo Graham and I need to get to work on the next Order of the Air novel, Fire Season. I’ve begun plotting the next Points novel, which will be Point of Graves, and that ought to keep me busy for a while.
Thank you Melissa Scott for talking with us!