Niall Harrison: I'd like to start by asking about one of my favourites of your stories, "Vector", which was published last year in We See a Different Frontier. One thing that struck me, while preparing for this interview, is that "Vector" is your only published story with a near-future setting, by which I mean the next hundred years or so. What was it about the issues in this story (or in the brief for the anthology?) that led you in that direction? Do you have any more plans to write about this timeframe?
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Now that you mention it, none of the stories in We See a Different Frontier are far future that I recall. Nothing in the anthology brief recommended or suggested this, I think we independently decided to focus that way. All the fantasy was historical, all the SF near future. It could've gone either way for me—engaging with history seems natural for post-colonial fiction, while near-future SF gives me immediate material to work with. The issues in "Vector" are so specific that while I could've written them as far future, situating them in the timeframe that I did felt more efficient—building on present-day concerns and events grounds the story in assumptions any contemporary reader can easily grasp, and hopefully relate to. I wanted to avoid dating the story, though, so I contextualize it with a catastrophe that drastically changes the world and radicalizes certain relations.
As it happens, I do have another story about this timeframe (this exact continuity, and in chronology a prequel to "Vector"). "Five Hundred and Ninety-Nine" is an original novelette included in Sean Wallace's The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures. Its steampunkness is up for debate, admittedly!
NH: I'll be looking forward to that one. I've read "Vector" a couple of times now, and I find it extremely powerful—the use of second person to convey the struggle for identity in the face of an imposed culture reminds me of Aliette de Bodard's "Immersion", but if anything "Vector" is even more claustrophobic. How did you go about developing the voice for this story? Was it a challenging story to write?
BS: It was a challenge to write, absolutely. One of those very hard, spiky things, and I had to ask people for feedback on it, something I don't usually do: it was an experiment in every way, voice and form and style. The reception to it was very surprising, I expected people might skip it; second person present tense can be a tough demand to make on readers. The voice, once I got started, was relatively easy: imperative, a series of commands to destroy yourself. The voice changes a little toward the end, I think, becoming more an expression of the narrator taking action. I'd love to write more second person, there's a visceral immediacy to it nothing else quite accomplishes. (A recent favorite of mine is Vajra Chandrasekera's "On Being Undone by a Light Breeze" in Lackington's.)
NH: I agree about the immediate and imperative nature of the second person—particularly when looking at control of identity in the way a story like "Vector" does it is, to use your word, an efficient match. If I say that it also strikes me as a political stylistic choice, do you take that as a compliment? I mean it as one.
BS: I do take it as a compliment; thank you!
NH: I ask because obviously for a lot of writers, "political" can be a pretty contentious word—there's an assumption that it means preaching, or somehow warping a story's "natural" form. Whereas to me it means a writer who is aware of their point of view and working with it. To take another example of yours, I think the end of "Paya-Nak" gains in power because it seems aware of what it's suggesting about certain intersections of gender, sexuality, relationships, and parenthood. So what I want to ask is: do you have, in general terms, goals for your fiction—beyond simply telling stories? And if so what are they? (Are they goals that require SF/fantasy stories specifically?)
BS: I had this Twitter conversation where we talked worldbuilding and some writers said that they start with an image, or a concept—magical or technological—while I said that I start from culture and the politics that surrounds it. Thinking back though, that might be redundant; it seems safe to suggest that culture and politics shape all writing, conscious or not. Intentionality matters, but politics can't warp anything because it is the essence of stories, it's one of our human filters. I don't say this to be antagonistic, it just seems self-evident. I can't imagine what a story completely untouched by politics would look like; if such a thing exists, I've yet to read it . . . and I've read The Little Prince to Vampire Academy. Though the things in "Paya-Nak" are almost accidental; that is, those intersections grew organically as I wrote the story, so I didn't entirely plan that out. Serendipity is a writer's guide.
I do see—sorry, there is that word again—SF/fantasy as incredibly efficient for the purpose of many sorts of questions. Speculative societies being the obvious one, and elements of the fantastic (or highly advanced tech) can literalize what you want to say. Defining my goals is trickier, I don't think I have concrete ones beyond asking questions and trying to suggest partial answers with my stories (and even then, not always). Like thought experiments, if you will. I don't want to write polemics, though. I want my writing always to have intriguing images, good structure, sharp characters.
NH: More generally, I'm fascinated by how and why SF writers choose when to set their stories. My reading the first time I encountered "Vector" was that it was a deliberate refusal of the freedom offered by your space operas and fantasies. Freedom might be an overly loaded word, but even with the ending, "Vector" seems to me a darker story than, say, "Annex"—which also features a subversion of an imposed colonial narrative, on a larger scale—in part because it is bound to our existing history. I wondered to what extent that consideration, to link or not to our world, factors into your choice of settings in general—given how often the control of history is an issue for your characters?
BS: Yes, "Five Hundred and Ninety-Nine" is slightly more hopeful than "Vector", but the overall tone of it is in the same vein, and both take place in a world far more limited than the Hegemony. The greatest point of divergence is that when I choose to link my fiction to our world I must take into account the circumstances and complications we live with, whether now or historical. These things have to be written with ruthless honesty; I can't pretend they aren't there and while in the near future they might change, people's behavior and geopolitics aren't going to be drastically different. There's less room for seismic shifts.
But with the far-future stories, there's greater—I agree with your choice of word—freedom of imagination and narrative. On one hand, this may make it less immediate, more metaphorical. On the other, it lets me try out concepts that aren't yet true or possible; my Hegemony characters vie for control of history in a very literal way, since in their world permeation of neural implants is total and information truly changes perception of reality. Terrible things can still happen to them, but they're empowered with the means to fight back. This is also a world in which characters face no difficulties arising from their gender or romantic preferences. They can do what they like, love whom they choose, dress and modify their bodies as they please. The far future grants that possibility and hope, and space opera allows for upheavals on scale larger than life—both prospects console me, and contribute to what I think of as narrative trajectories pointed toward optimism.
NH: I find that battle for history you mention an utterly compelling SFnal idea. There's a terrifying moment early in "Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade" where the protagonist of that story, General Lunha, casually edits herself into local public history—you realise you're seeing the flipside of the liberatory narrative in "Annex", and it's such an all-encompassing form of power. And I find it particularly interesting in your stories, precisely because where I think a lot of SF writers would use such a setting to focus on discussion of identity-as-mind, you're also writing about identity-as-body. How important is it to you that the same stories include fluidity of both mind and body? And how do you find that affects the narratives you end up writing?
BS: This might sound odd in light of "Silent Bridge" and other stories, but I'm not too interested in uploading minds for its own sake. A reader commented that in my SF, the body's often a host for technology. The potential effects of tech on our bodies compel me: not just life extension but also the sea-change in reproduction. How we look at making families and creating the next generation would be completely different if anyone could carry a pregnancy, or if everyone used artificial incubators. What if it's a basic right to modify your body to match your sense of self, and it's relatively painless? Identity isn't entirely body, but it's a big part. We're informed by our bodies, its failings, its strengths. The mind is mighty, but the body is what we present to the world and shapes so much of how we negotiate it. Get sick, break a bone, and this becomes doubly evident.
I don't think all my stories, where applicable, must include fluidity of both but the idea will often sneak up on me and integrate into the story anyway. As an aside, this fluidity has led me to poke at the idea of cultures that don't view anatomy as tied to gender.
NH: Have you had to think about how to convey that decoupling to (many) readers?
BS: It's something which occupies me a lot; this can't be written without considering our own context. To say "body parts don't matter, they don't define gender" runs the risk of erasing dysphoria, and that's not what I want. Instead, I imagine this on a scale—within this culture, some people experience dysphoria (and modify their bodies to their comfort) while others don't, or modify only partially, with none being the dominant norm and none treated as less valid than others. Conveying this to the reader is truly tricky; what I'm doing at the moment is to drop a few hints—Lunha is fluid in gender but experiences no dysphoria, so when he's a man his body is no different from when she's a woman, and socially that's nothing remarkable. Language helps as well, with a culture treating all given names as gender-neutral.
But it's difficult. I have a character we'd consider a trans woman (who has partially modified), but in her culture she's a woman with no qualifier before or after the fact, not even "she was assigned male at birth" because there's no assignment of gender to anatomy. This runs the risk of making her invisible, so within the story foreigners sometimes confuse her gender because she could sing mezzo-soprano, but some of her physical markers don't match their social expectations. I don't get much more specific than that confusion and let it imply, but I want there to be some signal that she's trans without being fetishistic.
NH: I'd also like to follow up on the way bodies and technology are represented in your stories, the Hegemony in particular. Sometimes the relationship is host-like, but sometimes, it seems to me, the distinction starts to break down. Once we fully understand and can freely alter them, bodies become a kind of technology, and for some of your characters—the end of "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly" springs to mind here—technology becomes the whole of their body. It seems a very expansive conception of what fits into the category of "human", and very exciting both in a metaphoric and literal sense. In the Hegemony universe, does "human" have any limits, as a category—is there such a thing as a "posthuman"?
BS: No, I think the word "posthuman" wouldn't even exist in their lexicon! When everyone's perpetually online and has been wearing implants since a young age, it seems what we would think of as posthuman now would simply be human—the unmarked default, whether with cybernetics and extensive modifications or without. "Humanity" seems inherently a flexible term, and while the character's change at the end of "Bees" is unique in that setting, if it became a common and public thing, their definition of humanity would surely expand to include that state. I especially like your view of the body, once fully understood, as technology. Even today there's still a lot we can't do with our bodies, a lot we can't understand or cure. A simple headache could be a symptom of just about anything; the body's signals are inexact and there are so many moving parts. A future where everything can be diagnosed correctly and quickly, and all the moving parts trivial to replace and install, that's pretty exciting.
Having said that, in the Hegemony there are no competitors for humanity—no aliens, no sentient AIs (so far), and therefore no reason for anyone to question the limits of what being human means; in stories where one or both exists, that might be different . . . I wouldn't say I "designed" it that way, more that I wrote what interested me, and so far other than one story with a sentient ship, I haven't run out of things I can do with humans yet.
NH: Going back a couple of answers again, the word "console" leaps out at me, because it's a term that crops up now and then in SF/F critical circles, almost always in a negative sense—consolation is seen as a way of ignoring or eliding what's difficult about the world, and this is seen as . . . irresponsible, perhaps. And "optimism", too, is a bit of a contested word; there's a school of thought that a lot of contemporary SF is too pessimistic. I think the systemic question can be tiresome—SF is always more than one thing at a time—but there's a discussion to be had about how attitudes like that affect what "the conversation" pays attention to as being valuable, and why. Do you see any evidence of this in reactions to your work? I mean, I did basically start by singling out what is arguably your bleakest story for praise . . .
BS: I did realize I might have used loaded words close together, but they expressed well enough what I wanted to say. I wrestle with it myself; my gut says downer stories occupy a moral high ground, being able to say more things more deeply . . . but on the other hand, I've liked a great many stories and books that aren't all tragic yet had plenty to say, and which continue to haunt my thought. The point worth making is that different people find different things consolatory. So the question, perhaps, is "Who is this optimism for; who will find this consolatory?" For people to whom the majority of media is anything but comforting, isn't it reasonable to offer narratives of optimism sometimes and isn't that a potent act in its own way?
Outside of that, my definition of optimism extends to stories where I can imagine something beyond its final line, whether for the world or the characters. So it's not about eliding reality or creating narratives where nothing bad ever happens to your characters, but the difference between having nothing left at the end (including yourself) and the possibility of surviving and continuing, and affecting change. Kameron Hurley's God's War offers this passage—"The world could burn around [Nyxnissa], the cities turn to dust, the cries of a hundred thousand fill the air, and she would get up after the fire died and walk barefoot and burned over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose. She would rebuild." Rebuild, that's a powerful word.
Having said that, "Autodidact" is one of my darker stories despite being far future; its finale is, ah, very final. It's probably no coincidence that this story stands strictly alone, unconnected to any other of mine. Its reception was—for a new writer like me, anyway—tremendous. But while "Vector" from last year gained considerable attention, so did "The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly" which isn't very dark. While I'm moved to say that people remember shattering stories better, my handful of experiences don't necessarily bear that out. Luckily, as I want to write both kinds. They take different sorts of courage.
NH: We've discussed the Hegemony quite a bit, and you mentioned that "Vector" isn't going to be a standalone. Several of your fantasies share a world, built around the myth of Houyi and Chang'e, and I'd like to talk a bit more about those. What, for you, is the value of retelling? What drew you to this myth-arc in particular?
BS: The practice of retelling old myths or stories seems to resonate with a lot of people—I believe this year SH has published at least one—and I think part of the draw is in updating them to more current ideas, and to introduce to them what you wish you could have grown up with (and so what you want your children to see growing up). The myth of Chang'e and Houyi particularly compelled me because they also represent yin and yang, female and male, but this exists concurrent to the idea that everyone contains both elements—so it shouldn't change the story's essence that Houyi is a woman. In some respects, this was a blueprint for my later forays into poking at gender in my SF. I've a weakness for tragedy and love that overcomes it, as well; unsurprisingly it's been said to me on occasion that my fiction is often fundamentally love stories. I was concerned, though, that the change might offend some, since this is part of a cultural bedrock that's not mine.
NH: Of the two stories published so far, in a number of ways the chronologically first ("Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon") is the more complex and ambitious piece, but I have to admit that "Chang'e Dashes From the Moon" is the one I clicked with more strongly, partly because I'm a sucker for sudden dramatic shifts in timescale. What made you decide to bring Chang'e to Hong Kong? Did you enjoy writing about a contemporary city?
BS: Hong Kong is a unique city! (But all cities are unique, of course.) I've written more about it in Scale Bright, a novella about Chang'e that's coming out from Immersion Press in July. Partly due to its history, it felt like a good place to have Houyi's centuries-long search for her wife's descendants end. Writing a contemporary location has its own particular challenges—it helps if you live there and have been for a while, but even then I had to make sure I've got a good sense of place, have got the spatial placement of things right. The sense of place is the most difficult part and I would balk at writing an entire novel like this, rather than a novella that's about a third of a novel in length, and I'm still not sure if I've got it well. We'll see about that in a month or two! I enjoyed the challenge—it's my love letter to the city—but I don't think I can pull it off again, and I'd never try to do it with a place I've never lived in for extended periods of time.
NH: Speaking of cities, I noticed that in a couple of other interviews you've mentioned Jan Morris as a writer you admire and who has influenced you, and recommended her novel Hav in particular. I love that book, so I can't resist asking you about her work. What do you like about her writing (either Hav specifically, or her other work)? What do you think her influence on you has been?
BS: The sense of place she achieves is nothing short of magic—it's hard enough to do that with a real place, so to pull it off with a fictional one takes a truly acute mind, a grand power of observation.
And it's wonderfully interesting in that, of course, Hav has echoes of the real world; parts of it feel whimsical, there's a slow, lovely grace to it that you find in more contemplative travelogues. But it's also unapologetically political, in how it engages with changes, even in how it portrays tourists. There's a moment where Morris meets the Director; he quotes her own writing at her, and fairly obviously it's an interpretation that doesn't have much to do with her intention, and anyway she's already forgotten all about that piece—this is oddly relatable, how your words can both escape your intent and become amplified in other's memory when you can barely recall it. The way history is a wriggling thing, that influences me especially. She has written a book on Hong Kong too, which I mean to get around to at some point.
NH: More generally, thinking about your body of work so far—what is it about building a world across stories that appeals? Do you plan for it, or is it more efficiency?
BS: I could write an entire essay on building a world across stories! But no, I never planned for it. My impetus is as simple as wanting to write more of the same characters (or expand on a story's secondary players) or do a little more with a particular concept. Some of it developed common patterns, so it made sense to fold them into the same family. A nice way for me to dodge the 'is there more, preferably a novel, about this setting or these characters?' question too! Not that I don't appreciate it—I'm very blessed to have readers express such interest—but up until recently I couldn't imagine committing to a novel, and now that I am committing to one it'll still take a long while. So for now, more connected short stories!
NH: In which case the obvious concluding question is: tell us a bit more about what you have coming up! Both in terms of stories and, if you feel comfortable, where the novel is taking you . . .
BS: The novel's taking me exciting places, I've never had a chance to do everything in one go. All right, not everything since there's little room in a military thriller to explore some of the quieter aspects that I'd like to include in an SF story. Other than that, I'm trying out a bunch of things that engage me deeply, from control of memory and history, modification of mind and body, gender and language, the freight of loyalty. Inevitably, it's set in the Hegemony.
Otherwise, there is Scale-Bright, and I've a silly number of short stories coming out this year: two more Hegemony stories in Solaris Rising 3 and Upgraded, a domestic slice-of-life fantasy in GigaNotoSaurus, among others.
NH: Much to look forward to, then! Which seems a good note to wrap up on—Benjanun Sriduangkaew, thank you very much for talking to me.
BS: Thank you.