Stephen Gaskell is an exciting new voice in science fiction. When not writing SF he is a game writer and science tutor. His short fiction has appeared in many places including Writers of the Future XXIII, Clarkesworld, Interzone, Extreme Planets anthology, Cosmos Magazine, and most recently in Albedo One. He took time out from working on his novel to talk to David Conyers about his book Strata and the state of World SF.
What kind of science fiction do you write?
It’s hard for me to categorise my science fiction as one sub-type or another because one moment I’m writing about galaxy-spanning apocalypes (Maelstrom’s Edge) and the next I’m writing about parkour and surveillance society (The Data Runners Above Our Heads: A Documentary). Whether it’s hard-SF or cyberpunk or something else, what my works do often have in common are spectacular settings and moments of high drama. My pieces are usually seeded by a glimpse of a wondrous environment or a dramatic vision: an astronaut spacewalking above a cirrus-flecked Earth; a human marionette traipsing across the Siberian tundra; an insect colony riddling an ancient asteroid. Because I find astronomical vistas and phenomena so awe-inspiring I am naturally drawn to this arena, and many of my works are set off-world. Balancing this fascination with the immense and the breathtaking I am also always keen to make my stories very human, very relatable, and my characters are usually ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. If anyone can suggest a shorthand term for this type of science fiction please let me know!
Tell us about your novella Strata co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, and what influenced you to write a story set on the surface of the sun?
Strata is the story of two men, a skimmer rider and a his handler, who work on a solar-mining facility in the sun’s chromosphere, and find themselves embroiled at the heart of a workers’ revolution. It’s set in the middle of the 22nd century by which time Earth’s oil and gas reserves have been spent, but humankind’s thirst for energy remains unquenched. To satisfy the demand for cheap energy, vast solar mining platforms circle the upper atmosphere of the sun, tight-beaming energy back to Earth. With tickets back home exorbitantly priced, most workers aboard the platforms are stuck in a vicious cycle of work and debt, and only find relief through following the “skimmer racing” season, which is kind of like a cross between Formula 1 and windsurfing (except they’re surfing the sun rather than waves). When one young skimmer rider is recruited by a secretive revolutionary group, however, there is a chance of change . . .
The seed of the idea which led to Strata came from Brad. He’d been reading about the sun’s atmosphere, and had had the idea of “solar surfing”. We don’t normally think of stars as having atmospheres like planets, so to speak, but that’s exactly what they do have. The structure is fairly complicated, but essentially it can be imagined as a molten “sea” swaddled in a thin atmosphere. Violent kinks in the interior magnetic field lead to fiery outbursts that often arc back down into the “sea” creating beautiful horseshoe shapes. Like any racing video game, these “arcs” were perfect for the gates that define the route of the race. When Brad told me he was interested in a collaboration based on this idea, I was immediately sold. The drama and danger and sheer spectacle of solar surfing had me entranced, and the fact that the interior of the sun was rarely used as a setting in SF was an added bonus. Everything else followed from this initial premise through a series of (semi-)logical answers to basic questions about these competitors and races. For example, we asked ourselves: who are these riders? How did this sport emerge? How is it finanically and technologically viable? Who’s watching? To this day, I’m still immensely proud of what we achieved in the novella, and one day I think we’d both like to return to this world. After all, the full title is “Strata: A Story of the Future Suns“!
Your story “Landscapes of a Martian Heart” in Issue 45 of Albedo One is both a hard SF tale and a personal human story. Do you believe it is important to tell stories at multiple levels?
Absolutely. I think fiction will always be stronger when it operates on multiple levels simultaneously. That’s the difficult juggling act that the best SF has to pull off. How do you show something immense and awe-inspiring without losing sight of the human story? A quick tale from my early writing life is illustrative of this problem. For a long time I wanted to write something meaningful about A.I.s (Artificial Intelligences), but my stories kept coming out stillborn. I eventually realised that the problem was that I’d left out the human angle, left out someone that the reader could relate to – someone to cheer, or rally against, or simply empathise with. My main characters were A.I.s but they were cold, disembodied beings, often missing the usual hopes and fears that we all possess. As a reader it was near impossible to relate! One day I hope I might be able to write a story with such a POV character, but I am much more aware of the pitfalls now, and more wary because of this. When stories written on multiple levels do come together though, it’s a magical thing. One of my favourite short stories for just this reason is Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm” which mixes a human tale of greed, political commentary, and philosophical speculation on the nature of evolution.
Mars is a popular destination in science fiction. What appealed to you about the Red Planet enough to want to write a story set there?
Mars is the perfect setting for marrying the science and technology of real life space programs, together with hints of humankind’s off-world future, and in this way, I think, is a very compelling setting for readers. You can already see how much the Red Planet has captured the general public’s imagination by the interest that surrounded – and still surrounds–the Mars Curiosity landing and subsequent explorations. For me, Mars allowed me to have a very contemporary-minded main character with all the foibles and preoccupations of modern life, placed in a very alien landscape. Without spoiling anything too heavily, the fact that the journey to Mars currently takes on the order of six months to a year was also perfect. You’ll just have to read the story to know what I mean by that! Further research about Mars also revealed to me that its landscape is more diverse than might ordinarily be imagined, with its southern ice-cap being especially captivating.
You are currently writing a science fiction novel set in a future Lagos? What is the appeal of Nigeria in a science fiction setting?
I’ve always tried to resist the most rutted of paths when it comes to my settings, so when I watched a BBC documentary entitled “Welcome to Lagos” which aired in 2010, I knew this was a place that I wanted to write about. Lagos is a place of contrasts and conflicts, where mega-wealth and utter poverty collide, where simple human ingenuity comes into contact with the bleeding-edge of technology, and possibly a place where some of the chief socio-economic battles of the 21st century will be fought, and if not resolved, then at least ignited. I’m by no means fooling myself that I will capture even a hundredth part of the feel of the place or the mindset of its people, but I do hope to render the country with respect and understanding, and hopefully challenge some of the negative stereotypes people have of Nigeria. Being able to write from the point of view of a young Nigerian–a person from a group largely ignored by mainstream science fiction–was also very appealing for me.
Have you travelled in Africa, and specifically Nigeria, and if so, what personal experiences are you incorporating into your story?
Sadly not. I would love to explore West Africa – and all Africa for that matter! – but my current life choices don’t permit it. For the timebeing I’ve had to make do with the novels, documentaries, interviews, reports, streetviews, and other research tools easily available to me.
You are known as an advocate of world science fiction. Why do you believe a global voice in the SF genre is important?
Because, duh! This is such an important question, with so many multi-faceted answers, that I think I’m going to struggle to answer it adequately here. However, I will try! The first, most obvious reason, is an existential one: because the world itself is diverse. The best way I can put this idea is in terms of biodiversity conservation. I’m a firm believer in protecting as many of the world’s ecosystems and species as possible, not primarily because they are a source of industry or medicine or have some other human utility, but because they exist, and the universe is a richer place for having this diversity. By preserving biodiversity we are also maintaining a living record of the sum total of existence, maintaining the Earth’s history. Promoting and nurturing world SF is a similar endeavour.
Secondly, if we want to understand one another, whether that be in our personal relationships, our communities, our nation social fabric, all the way up to global relations we need to communicate! World SF can be a huge part of that ideal of communication – what are the anxieties, the wonders, the dreams, the mindsets of others who share this planet with ourselves? If we only read work by a narrow subset of the totality of science fiction writers we’re not only impoverishing ourselves, we’re actually erecting walls between people. Many of the challenges coming to humankind in the 21st century will only be solvable by united global action, and this means we really, deeply, need to understand each other, not act on stereotypes or disempower people by assuming we know what’s best. World SF can be a huge part of that dialogue.
Lastly (although I’m sure there are many more reasons I haven’t considered), for the sheer unadulterated joy of reading something original and thought-provoking!
Who are the new ‘world’ SF writers to watch and why?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. The truly new “world” SF writers will be writing in their birth language, and as such are probably almost completely unknown in Western SF circles. What we really need are institutions and systemic mechanisms that see works being translated in all directions. Maybe when Google translate gets smart enough to really capture the nuances of prose and human experience we might be able to read an Arabic or Russian text as easily as an English one. Saying that, I still believe voices such as Tade Thompson, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jonathan Dotse, who operate in Western SF circles, are tremendously important for the development of true world SF. I’ve especially been waiting with baited breath for Dotse’s debut novel, Accra: 2057 for some years now, so hurry up and finish the book, Jonathan! I’m also looking forward to reading Ken Liu’s translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of the most popular hard-SF series in China, which comes out this October.
I’ve just wrapped up my work on the 4X strategy title, Endless Legend, from Amplitude Studios, and I’m greatly looking forward to giving that a spin when it’s released. It’s a Civilization-style game with a Game of Thrones intro sequence aesthetic, and a wonderfully rich and complex backstory. Also, the artwork is some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The big two projects I’m working on this summer are Maelstrom’s Edge a far-future dystopian SF universe set across a spiral arm of our galaxy, and my currently untitled first novel, a near-future apocalyptic tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. Aside from those I’m also working on the foundation stages of another shared universe with some of my fellow Villa Diodati writers, which is terrifically exciting but too fragile to talk about just yet! By pooling our resources we’re hoping to greater than the sum of our parts, but we shall see!