An Interview With Joan Slonczewski

by Eric M. Heideman

from Tales of the Unanticipated, Number 17 (Winter/Spring/Summer 1997)

Born in 1956 in Katonah, New York, Joan Slonczewski (slonzoo-ski) obtained an A.B. in biology from Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania-and a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Yale. She is a professor of biology at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and is married with two sons. At Bryn Mawr she become acquainted with the Society of Friends (Quakers), later becoming a Friend herself. Her four novels are informed by both her scientific and spiritual training. Her future humanoids use genetic engineering, create artificial intelligences, and even terraform entire planets. Her heroes aren't warriors with hand lasers, but negotiators, looking for a way for everyone to win.

This interview was conducted, in front of an audience, at Diversicon 3 at the Holiday Inn Express in St. Paul on Sunday, August 13, 1995, where Slonczewski was Guest of Honor.

EMH: Tell us something about your background and how you got into writing.

JS: I grew up in a very wooded area of New York, Westchester County. I've always been interested in nature, and I've always been interested in science. My father was, is, a theoretical physicist at IBM, and I was the first kid to deal with a computer on the block. I attended Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, where I found out about Quakerism. I earned a degree in molecular biology at Yale. And I got into writing science fiction. Part of my inspiration for writing was reading Ursula Le Guin. Because I always enjoyed reading science fiction, but she was the first female author who really inspired, and I always had the feeling that I could write things like her.

In terms of other things motivating me, I was very much affected by the nuclear arms race. Does anybody still remember the nuclear arms race? (Laughter.) It's hard to believe that [President Reagan's 1983] "Star Wars" speech was over ten years ago, now. You know, that today's [college] students, coming in, were six at the time. But, anyway, I was deeply affected by that, I think, in my subconscious. I always had a sense that I would never have any children. And I think that was connected to the threat of nuclear war. My parents were both fairly traditional. And this sort of thing was not discussed. Although, when I was five, my father built a bomb shelter. That was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I think that that was also an event that got buried in my awareness for many years. So, when I started writing, the first two or three books I wrote really had that as a subtext, I think. Getting involved in the Quaker meeting, the Friends meeting, gave me a healthier world view, and some sort of hopeful alternatives for the future, that have increasingly come to take hold of my writing, so that now I think I write more about that and less negatively, against things that I would be afraid of.

EMH: Who are some writers who you've found especially influential and/or who you particularly admire? You've mentioned Le Guin.

JS: Le Guin, certainly. I would say that Heinlein and Herbert are the writers I look to most in terms of technique. In part because I am very interested in writing as communication. I don't want to write things that nobody else will be able to read or won't get the point. I'm interested in Heinlein and Herbert because they were such successful communicators, and because they wrote very straightforward stories. I want to write stories that are straightforward in terms plot. I don't mind, even, oldfashioned plot notions. That's fine with me. I just want to write stories where some of the points get across. So -- I look to those writers in terms of how they did it. I'm particularly impressed in Heinlein's writing, that he was interested in family relationships at a time when that was, perhaps, not universal. And I'm interested in Herbert because he managed to introduce such complexity, and deal with many different kinds of people and cultures. So I find those two writers particularly useful to look at. Even though I may disagree with them politically, that doesn't bother me at all; I'm still willing to learn tools of the trade from them. I think in terms of ideas and in terms of personal daring, I find Le Guin the most interesting.

EMH: I believe that you said that you were not born into the Society of Friends; you joined later in life?

JS: Yes, that's right. When I was at Bryn Mawr. My future husband was at Haverford College, and we became married under care of Haverford meeting. And I became involved in Quakers from there on. I've since found that, actually, there are a surprisingly high proportion of scientists involved in Quaker meetings. I think in part because Quaker meeting is highly experiential. It emphasizes, sort of, experiment with God, rather than just a particular set of beliefs handed down.

And I've found that, in general, my experience with Quakerism will intersect with my experiences of science and biology. And that all my experiences would sort of weave together, for me. I became very interested in ideas of cooperation in human societies, and nonviolent conflict resolution. While I was in graduate school, this began to merge with some of what I was reading in biology as to the evolution of cooperation. In animals as well as human species. I found a lot of cross-currents there. And a lot of this works into my fiction, as well. I see a lot of ways in which science and religious ideas can work together, or interact in interesting ways.

EMH: Yeah, that's certainly one of the things that stands out in your fiction is a consistent exploration of nonviolent conflict resolution. Do you see that as a challenge, within the context of what has been traditionally viewed as an adventure form of fiction, to set up a problem that doesn't result in a shoot-em-up ending?

JS: Well, I did at one time. I think, when writing A Door into Ocean, I saw that as a tremendous challenge because that was a very militant time, in a way. And yet, in retrospect I think that the apparent militancy of American culture was a veneer. That, beneath the surface, people were tremendously concerned about the impossibility of having another war come out the way the Second World War did, which was that America sent troops over there, and they came back here, without much problem. I think people have understood for a long time that that was not gonna happen, and that there have been tremendous cultural and economic interchanges among so many countries in the world, that in fact Americans were figuring that out, and we were ready to welcome the collapse of the Soviet Union in a very positive way.

I think that it was curious that before I published A Door into Ocean, the publisher of Still Forms on Foxfield rejected [Door], saying that it sounded like a fairy tale. I wondered if that was a pun on the fact that it was an all-female society. But, at the time, the idea was something you would not see in science fiction. And yet, it wasn't the book that I really wanted to write. I really would've liked to write a book about how the Eastern European countries would break away from Communism nonviolently. I knew that I lacked the skill in historical fiction to do that and also that even if I could, it could never get published, it would Just be laughed off. Of course, five years later it actually happened, and I received postcards from 'students in Czechoslovakia saying how they enjoyed reading my book at the same time that they were undergoing their revolution. So-today I sort of feel that nonviolent revolution in fiction is not a challenge anymore. I mean, it's obvious that it really happened, and to people who don't recognize it happened that's-too bad. You know, it's there, either you see it or you don't. So I don't see that as a challenge anymore, I sort of see it as a given. I have incidents of that sort in books that I'm writing, now, but they're not the main focus anymore, I've moved on to other things.

EMH: 'Specially considering that you were 24 when your first novel, Still Forms on Foxfield, was published, I'm struck by the maturity and subtlety of the book. Tell something about how you put Still Forms together.

JS: (pause.) Well -- I suppose the way I put all my books together is that I get snatches of ideas in all different places. No matter where I'm at. So that, while I'm doing my research, I'll hear of an interesting thing that happens, and then I'll think, well, that could be a metaphor for some literary idea. A good example of that is the color of the Sharers [in A Door into Ocean], the purple color. That originated when I saw a student who had purified a purple light-receptor pigment out of halobacterium halobium. This is called the bacteriorodopsin pigment. And this is a pigment that absorbs a photon of light, and bleaches out. He showed me this test tube with this pigment, he shined light on it, and it went from purple to bleach clear. That was where I got the idea for the skin of the Sharers, having as symbionts these purple bacteria that would bleach clear, although instead of light, I changed that to oxygen tension. Since then, by the way, this molecule has become a candidate for one of the first molecular computers, because it's being used as a switching mechanism in a protein computer circuit. So there are a lot of stories arising out of bacteriorodopsin. But that was a completely biological phenomenon that I sort of transferred into a literary metaphor, and yet it still plays a biological role in the story as well, because the bacteria were viewed by Valans as an infection and so they take drugs to get rid of 'em, but the Sharers try to keep them healthy, and so on. so that sort of branched out into many other ideas.

I think in general, my thinking about my life is very weblike; that is, I put out ideas and make connections in all directions. I've always sort of done that. I think that I've always thought of myself as a grown-up, even at age two. And, had a very lonely childhood because I just couldn't relate to other children. Until I went to college; that was the first time I ever met other people I could relate to. And today I sort of feel like a thousand years old, because, you know, my husband studies ancient Greece and Rome, and I'm very aware of those cultures. And I always think back to that and sometimes forget that not everybody still reads all that stuff. That's just how I am.

EMH: I assume that the community on Foxfield closely reflects the style of the Quaker meetings you've been to?

JS: Yes, that's right. And in [The] Wall Around Eden, there's some Quaker worship, as well. That's, I think, fairly accurate.

EMH: Something that emerges in that first book is, already you've got two sides, as it were, both of whom look upon themselves as the good guys.

JS: M-hm.

EMH: The Quaker community on Foxfield, and the utopian culture from Earth, that is determined in imposing their way of life on people in Foxfield, [both] think of themselves as very decent people.

JS: Yes, I very rarely have absolute villains in my books. And, where they do appear, they're not the most interesting characters. Which is perhaps unusual in science fiction where, so often the villains are the most interesting characters. But, I guess I'm less interested in villains than in decent, everyday people, trying to do the right thing, even through their actions may have horrific consequences.

EMH: Tell us something about your work in biology.

JS: I study bacteria] genetics. I study intestinal bacteria, and try to figure out which of the genes of a given species are involved in the bacteria responses to environment change. And of course for intestinal bacteria, environmental change means change in temperature or change in food, because whenever you eat, there's sudden increase in food, and then they gobble it all up and it's gone again. So I'm interested in how bacteria sense particular changes in acidity, because going through the stomach you have an extreme change in acid level, and there is evidence that that's related to how bacteria know that they have entered a human body, and can start disease, if they are a disease-causing bacteria. But I'm also interested in the fact that most bacteria, by far the vast majority of bacteria do not cause disease, and are symbionts. Endo-symbionts, symbionts within a host. And that in a way is a metaphor for some things that I work with in my fiction, as well.

EMH: How do you balance being a professor of biology, a mother of two sons, and a novelist?

JS: Well, my husband sure helps out a lot, I would say. I make good use of time, in that I get ideas here and there, throughout the day. And, if I can manage to write half an hour a night, it adds up. Because I always have the story in the back of my mind, one way or another. And then, every two or three years I'll take a partial leave of absence and get that book finished. That's sort of how it's worked.

EMH: You make extensive use of your biological background in A Door into Ocean. Tell something about how you created the world of Shora, and Sharer culture.

JS: Well, I would say that that world evolved, in my head, out of a lot of different impulses. One of the ideas I started with was wanting to write a book that would illustrate nonviolent resistance. In order to do that and to make it dramatically effective, it would be less interesting to have two bureaucratic, 20th century state-type cultures, one of which has a peace academy and the other doesn't. I mean, they're still basically the same. So, to make it more interesting, I wanted to pose the most extreme case, what is the most extremely vulnerable creature you can imagine, and how does that participate in nonviolent resistance. Because Gandhi claimed that nonviolent resistance was something that even a child could learn to do. That's a very famous and important statement in the literature. I figured that also, in terms of what the audience would hear, that an all-female culture would be considered vulnerable. I sometimes make use of stereotypes in order to write against them, and this was an example of that. The stereotype of what is most vulnerable is either a child or an unclothed woman. At the same time, I also saw the idea of the water-world as symbolizing flexibility and change, as opposed to the stone world, which symbolizes physical strength, and power. So, that was another part of this dichotomy, setting up something that appeared vulnerable and changeable.

I remember I was tempted to use the title The Naked and the Dead. (Laughter.) But I realized that that had been used already. I read Norman Mailer's book and was somewhat influenced by that because I figured I had to do lots of reading in war fiction to figure out what people would be expecting when they came to read a book that included warfare. There were ideas in that that I found particularly interesting, particularly the climax of The Naked and the Dead, where the sort of macho hero is actually overcome by a bees' nest. You know, as opposed to the technology of warfare that's been going around you the whole book. So I started with that. Also, in terms of thinking of a water world, a lot of the ideas grew out of that in terms of the ecology, because there is so much fascinating ecology that you can do with an ocean eco-system. And I was interested-in how the eco system would take part in the plot. I wanted to demonstrate some ecological principles in the plot, and to show how that interacts with the things that humans try to do to each other. And it really is a complete eco-system. Including the producers as the plankton, and the water fire, the rafts that are plants, as well as the ecological consumers, which are the grazers, the fish, the sort of squidlike creatures, and the worms. The giant seaswallowers are secondary consumers, cause they swallow everything. And what happens if you knock out one of these is that then you have an imbalance, and some creatures have a population increase and others crash. And that happens a couple of places in the book. When the soldiers try to get rid of the sea swallowers, then you have this ecological imbalance, that puts everything out of whack.

EMH: Your third novel, Wall Around Eden, seems quite different in tone from your other novels. Did you have a sense of taking kind of a left turn in that book?

JS: Yes. I wanted to try something more direct than I had written before. And that was, perhaps, my most direct book in terms of attacking the nuclear arms race. I felt that I just needed to write that out, and get rid of it, once and for all. And that was written in a very tense time for those of us who were politically aware of the three minutes away [from nuclear war] business. For people who were aware of just how dicey things were, that was a very difficult time, those few years. I think we don't realize the extent to which people were affected by it. When you saw things like the Philadelphia Orchestra doing a benefit concert for the Nuclear Freeze, I mean -- (laughs) -- people were really upset.

EMH: Yeah.

JS: So for me this was in part my response to it, and it was also a response to what I saw as the unthinking trends in the science fiction community. Particularly the cyberpunk trend. I mean, I just could not believe that we are three minutes away from -- it, and people are writing this junk about how wonderful it is to run around pointing phallic weapons at each other. And so this book, more than my others, was in a sense an attack on that, and it received vicious reviews from the people it was directed against. So --

EMH: So it worked.

JS: (Laughs.) It worked, that way. But unlike my other books it received less universal interest. A number of people have singled out Wall Around Eden as their favorite who would probably not otherwise read science fiction. I received a letter from an Adventist minister who said that this book helped him through the death of his father, with all the religious speculation and so on in it. And I've heard from very interesting people, particularly people in the midwest seem to relate to that book. It's set in a small town, with very small-town values,

I developed a certain amount of cynicism as to the degree of feminism in the science fiction community based on the response to this book, because there were male writers who considered themselves feminists who wrote about how terrible this book was because the girl didn't wanna have sex right away and still cared about virginity. And then there were female writers who had no interest because this book wasn't feminist. And, on the other hand, I felt that this was perhaps the most real, and common woman character that I'd ever created as the heroine of that book. So, as I say, that book met with mixed responses, but I felt I learned a lot about the science fiction community as a result of the responses to it. I also learned that, heck, those people just haven't read all the stuff I have. I mean, one of the points of Wall Around Eden was that, when those bombs go off, it's not just today's humans that are lost but all of past human culture and all the languages that anyone has ever spoken. And there are quotes from about five different languages, and from all different kinds of literature in that book. Which I tried to present in a way that you could figure them out, even if you didn't know French and German and Spanish and ancient Greek, and so on.

EMH: As impressive a job of world-building as you did in A Door into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium has an order of magnitude more complexity, it seems to me --

JS: M-hm.

EMH: -- with several different cultures interacting, and each of the cultures has inner complexity, too. There aren't any easy bad guys. Talk some about how you pulled all of that together.

JS: How I pulled it all together I honestly don't know. (Laughs.) I think I have a very clear sense, in my head, of where those different cultures stand. I saw four basic cultures in that book. There was the female-dominant culture of the clippers. The male-dominant culture, Urulan. Then the two genderless cultures, on Shora, were the all-female Shorans and the Elysians. It was pretty clear to me, in my head, where those stood. And when they got together, it was sort of inevitable how each would -construct or deconstruct the other. And I clearly did not want one of them to come out totally ahead.

The Elysians consider themselves the most advanced, and they are certainly the most advanced technologically, although the Sharers, in some respects, are ahead of them technologically. But overall, they have the most advanced technology and infrastructure, and the most sophisticated philosophical and societal constructs. They consider Urulan to be the most backward, and barbarian. But it turns out that the Ururlites have their say, too, because they expose certain vulnerabilities of the Elysians. They expose the fact that Elysian technology depends on manipulation of embryos and, basically, infanticide, because you kill off the ones that don't work. You select a subset of embryos, which you designate as experimental subjects, because they have traces of chimpanzee or gorilla blood in them. Frequently [they] designate those as experimental subjects, and then the others as the children of your race, and so you experiment on one and not on the other. Whereas the Urulites have gorilla-hybrid slaves, which looks extremely barbarous, but in fact is little different, philosophically, from what the Elysians are doing. And the Urulites forbid abortion. That's their benchmark of civilization, and they say, "Can you say the same?" So, that's turned upside down. In a number of ways like that I try to show that different cultures have different values, or places where they've figured things out. And different weaknesses.

EMH: You make extensive use of biological issues in Daughter of Elysium. You've got nanotechnology, terraforming of worlds that involves eliminating the native life forms, machines becoming conscious, extreme longevity, overpopulation, and genetic engineering, including humanoid gorillas. (Laughs.) Talk about some of the above.

JS: Well, in one sense, perhaps, I tried to do too many things at once in Daughter of Elysium. And I could see that happening. But in another sense, what I find in real life is that you can't deal with just one issue. So that to write a novel about, say, just terraforming, will be artificial because you can't ever deal with terraforming outside the context of other issues. And that's one of the main points I've made about [Kim Stanley Robinson's] Red Mars, While I find that's a great book about terraforming, yet, if you step outside the idea of terraforming, there are so many issues that are just totally absent in it.

And so I could have chosen just one of the dozen issues I was interested in to write about. But instead, the main picture I wanted to get is whatever ethical issue you're interested in, you can't ever just devote a life to that issue in isolation, because you'll be constantly impinged on, by all these others. So Blackbear starts out, you know, "I want to study fertility and longevity. I wanna do that, but why does my wife have to get called off to Urulan, that barbarous planet, and what about those nuclear missiles, and what about those Sharers over there, how do they fit into all this, anyway?" And he gets very confused. But I think that is an accurate representation of how we deal with ethical issues.

And then, of course, the issue nobody has thought about is, what do the machines think about everything? In the end, after all that, you don't realize there's a revolution going on underneath you. In terms of how this book relates to us today, I think that the issue of the environment, where are we gonna put everybody, is a significant issue, and there are several solutions explored in the novel, none of which is fully satisfactory. The Sharers are the most purist, in the idea that, well, we'll keep our population, and our little planet, and that should be it, but of course they exist in a universe of other worlds, where people are coming out in spaceships and landing on their planet. And, what do they do. I mean their ethics says, if the person is starving, you feed them. Yet they can't feed 20 billion starving people. So they end up compromising their ideals. That's not a permanent solution. They end up, almost, on a reservation. It's like we're here, but we depend on the Elysians to keep other people off our planet.

Man: In other words, they have to be bad guys.

JS: Right. Exactly. So the Elysian solution is, we totally regulate child-bearing, and that's it. But, it turns out that though their child-bearing is totally regulated and they have a nice little pool of genes to deal with, their society depends on ever-increasing stimulation and pleasure, things to keep them occupied over the thousand or so years they live. And so they are still taking up more and more of the resources of the world. And that's unstable as well.

The Bronze Sky is perhaps the most obvious example of instability. It's interesting that on Bronze Sky you can have some of these societies where the women run the show, and, having children is at a premium. There's an interesting question in anthropology as to why more women-dominated societies have not been found. Because one or two have been found. The Trobriand islanders [are] one example. But they're rare. And one reason for that may be that the value of women dominates in a society where population growth is exponential; where there are infinite resources, and therefore the more children you can have, the more you promote your family. Whereas in an environment where resources are limiting, then men are at a premium, because you need men to protect and steal enough resources to support the children you are able to raise. Most of culture has developed during times of resource limitation, and therefore is patriarchal. And therefore, the male baby has greater interest to the family than the female baby, because it's how much you can win and steal, rather than how many children you can make. Which is a 30-second description of a very complex argument, obviously.

So, in order to show a female-dominated culture, it had to be one on a frontier planet which was recently settled, where you still have exponential growth going on for enough generations that you can develop a female-dominant culture. What they don't realize is of course they're headed for a crash. Because at some point, that can't [go] on. That planet will also be full. So the only answer, then, is to go out, terraforming more and more planets. But, of course, there will only be a certain supply of terraformable planets in the universe, so that's not a permanent solution, either.

EMH: You often write about utopias in the original sense of the term: not perfect societies, but planned societies. Talk some about what makes planned societies intellectually intriguing, and also about the challenges of writing utopian fiction that really is fiction, and that involves the reader in the story.

JS: I'm not sure that I write utopian fiction, actually. I appreciate having people interested in utopias look at it that way. But I guess I write utopian fiction in the sense of the other-world but not in the sense of perfect-world. Because none of the cultures I write about are perfectly good. The Sharer society certainly has its strengths and its weaknesses, and had good people and bad people in it. That was maybe the closest that [I've come]. The Elysian society starts looking as if they might have created something perfect. But you can tell from the beginning that they're not, because they say, "Well, we're not really immortal." And it turns out that they may live a thousand years and -- senesce for 10,000. So, that's certainly not.

I think what I like to do in creating another world, is to try to extend some tendency in our own world, and see how far you take it. In the Elysian culture I was extending our current health care tendency, which is that in western societies we have essentially extended the life expectancy of people to twice that in pre-industrial society. So we have a high premium on health care. Effective population control. And where does that leave us? It leaves us very concerned about health care. Very terrified of the aging process, because, in effect, we've extended the aging process far longer than any of the other parts of the life span. And what does that do to our psyche, and how we think and how we relate to one another. So that's one example. I think, in a way, the least appreciated part of that book is the role of the machines, because in a way the role of machines in our culture is something that even science fiction people are surprisingly unaware of.

There was a time when it was fashionable to write about robots gaining consciousness. There's several famous examples in literature. You don't tend to see that much, now. What you see now is people with machine-extensions, the cyborg. But nobody seems to be interested in what's gonna happen when the everyday machines we work with wake up, some day. And I'm not sure how to write something utopian about that because it's just sort of hard to imagine what that'll be like.

EMH: You make very fluid use of multiple viewpoints in your fiction. Tell something about your technique.

JS: I think [using] multiple viewpoints dramatizes differences, it creates dramatic contrasts. Having different points of view about the same subject. I could have written A Door into Ocean just from the Sharer viewpoint; but that would've left it a mystery as to how they won, really, because you wouldn't understand the effect they had on their opponents. Having the viewpoint of their opponents made ironic contrast, it provided humor, in a way, but it also showed the weakness of their opponents, in that they could not understand what the Sharers were up to. And vice versa. I mean, there was a lack of understanding on both sides. And to understand that, you have to show the different viewpoints.

EMH: You were saying earlier in the convention that when you're about to make a transition from one viewpoint to another you sort of set up the next person.

JS: That's right. I try to make it so that, whenever I bring in a new viewpoint, it's always someone who's already known in the story, so that you have someone to connect it to. And, in a state where you really want to know what that next viewpoint is doing or thinking. I find it hard to read a book where you get a second viewpoint with absolutely no connection to the first. And sometimes it's almost like a coy trick where they expect you to read a whole chapter before you figure out, "Oh, here's the connection." I think you have to be really good to make that work. I prefer to show the connections first, and have it fit in together.

EMH: Something you write about a lot is alternative kinds of families-and family structures. [What's your] thinking about your approaches to that, in various stories?

JS: I guess, first of all, I write based on families I know. I'm interested in a wide range of families, including how [children] are raised by orphanages. I have a very old memory, from when I was a child and visited my grandmother, in Brazil, who had retired there. She took me to visit the local orphanage, because there was no welfare state there at the time; I don't think there's much now, even. She took me to visit the nuns, with all these little, little boys. And they showed the two latest babies that had been dropped on their doorstep that day. Apparently this was a regular occurrence there, and there were all these children being raised. That's one kind of family, and people really are raised that way. What would that be like. Today there are a lot of unintentional family structures that get built. I mean, people mix and match families. The so-called blended families occur, and then there are what you might consider the anti-family situations, you know, the hospitals with the boarded babies, where the babies are left there till whenever, and yet still those children are going to grow up, and what's that like, for them. So, I'm as interested in family structures that arise, as in intentional family structures.

EMH: After over 15 years of novel-writing, you recently had your first short story published in Analog. What inspired you to try a short story? How is the writing different from novelwriting?

JS: I really don't know. I'd like to say Lois Bujold made me do it. (Laughs.) Which I suppose is as close as anything. I'd like to see my books gain a little more exposure, then I think they have. I guess every writer feels that way, right? Obviously. And I thought that connecting with the Analog readership would be a helpful thing to do. And in working on my next novel, I was developing such a unique setting, and eco-system, that I thought, this might be something I could write a quick story about, that would have just the interesting concept itself. That's what Analog is good for is the concept story, and sure enough, Stan Schmidt thought that was great. I know Stan is very concerned with things being really true. Because, I suppose I shouldn't tell you this, but a crucial factor in the plot is that the organisms have triple-helical DNA. And so the first thing that Stan said when he saw me at Context was, "All right, I'm going to buy this story, but I want you to tell me, is there really triple-helical DNA?" And I told him, "Sure there is." In fact, it's a hot item right now in the pharmaceutical industry. You can make these little pieces of DNA that will form a triple helix with double-helical DNA, thereby binding very specifically to a genetic controller's site. And this has enormous pharmaceutical applications, for controlling gene expression as part of therapy. So triple-helical DNA structures are a hot topic, now.

EMH: Do you think you'll do more short stories?

JS: I don't know. I suppose it's possible.

EMH: What projects do you have in the works?

JS: Mainly I'm working on my current book. Daughter of Elysium ends up with several unanswered questions. One of which is, what's gonna happen after all these machines have woken up. And the other of which is, what is gonna happen, now that terraforming has become politically unacceptable. I won't go into the details of why. Who knows why things become politically unacceptable, but, at this point, for a variety of reasons, that's the case. Well, the first question was solved pretty much the way Fred Pohl said it would have to be, which is that of course the machines eventually get bought off, in society, and end up doing the kinds of things that humans do; earning money and finding partners and stuff like that.

So my next book takes place once that problem has been more or less solved. There's a Sentients Association that promotes sentient rights, and sentient affirmative action and stuff like that. (EMH chuckles.) Which plays [into] various subplots in the book. But the second issue is, if we can't terraform planets anymore, what are we gonna do with excess population? What has happened is that some of these excess populations are dying off of dreadful diseases. The book opens with a little girl who's dying in one of these epidemics; but she lasts just long enough to get rescued by a priest who picks up stray children for an orphanage, which has been founded on the second planet, which is being settled without terraforming. They've figured out ways to settle a planet without terraforming if you can genetically engineer the people to survive on that planet. The trouble is that the genetic engineering is most effective, and most costeffective, with young children, before their immune systems have fully developed. So most of the settlers are either children or sentient machines, which can be just constructed to survive on this planet. So there are a couple of priests, a couple of machines who have also become priests, and this orphanage, and these children that they've rescued from dying planets. And it's clearly a quixotic sort of enterprise, because you have a planet of 20 billion, and you've rescued 20 children to raise in an orphanage, and the whole project is so expensive because of the genetic engineering, that it's kind of absurd. But, you know, some day it might be cheaper, so this is our pilot project. That's the idea.

The formal interview was followed by a discussion of Slonczewski's work sponsored by the SF book-discussion group, Second Foundation. Other voices recognizable on the tape are those of Janice Bogstad, Martha A. Hood, Penelope Ebbits, and André Guirard.

JB: Do you have a secret of how to keep this balance going, of family and work and writing?

JS: I'm not sure if it's a stable balance or not. After my last book I sort of said, "Never again." It was so emotionally wrenching -- but, you know, now I've started another one.

JB: The thing I was wondering about is that, people sometimes wonder how one can do many things, but sometimes -- one needs to?

JS: Right. Exactly.

JB: In order to resolve something that's happening in one part of our life.

JS: Well, yes, that's right, and I've always thought that I need to do many different things. I like working with children. I do a lot with children. Not only with my own children but through volunteering in local school systems. I've volunteered at 14 local elementary schools, bringing my science experiments. But I could never spend all day working with children. Including my own. I could never spend all day working in a research lab; in grad school I managed to pretend to work that way, but never quite did. I made up for time when it came to writing my thesis. Cause I'd already written a whole book, so writing a thesis was no sweat. (Laughter.) I like teaching, but I could never spend all day doing that. And I like writing but I could certainly never spend all day doing that. So, I've always worked best having a number of projects that sort of feed into each other.

My writing has led into things with my teaching, I've found. This year I've actually developed a non-majors biology course, using science fiction novels to present principles of biology. One of the features of this course is that I have a team teacher from Alpha Aquarii who will lecture by e-mail to the students. That's one sort of application I've found of science fiction to teaching. In general I find that the story-writing is something I have to do for my own sake. You know, it's a form of therapy for me, except that the money usually goes in the other direction. So -- I don't know, I hope that I won't write until I've written myself out and then keep on writing the way some of the more famous people do. I really hope I don't do that.

MAH: At this point in your career, how do you deal with publishers' expectations of what would be considered marketable, if you wanna write something that might not be as marketable as something else?

JS: I would say that's entirely internal. I want my books to have as high a readership as possible, without compromising the essential things I want to write about. It's always a compromise to figure out what's the optimum balance. I don't pay much attention to what my publisher has to say about that. I used to work with David Hartwell, and he was a very good critic, and I listened to a lot of what he had to say. Right now, unfortunately, I don't have that good a situation. My publisher wants to continue with me, but the kind of things they have to say are mainly, "Cut this about 20 percent." And I just say, "No." And if they don't want it I know a couple other publishers that want my books. So I feel pretty confident about it. At the same time, I do want to get more exposure, and for my next book I'd like to write something a bit tighter than Daughter of Elysium, something that might even, possibly, be serializable. Since, you know, that's one way to gain exposure. So -- I'm interested in the creative possibilities. To me the idea of writing something that I could serialize in Analog; it's like, well, could you write a sonatina. I mean, even Beethoven wrote a fugue once just to show he could do it. So I see it almost as an artistic challenge. Could I write something that has artistic integrity and yet fits a certain word limitation, or whatever. And I'm not afraid of trying that. But I feel that I'm also in a position that if it doesn't work I can just say no, because I don't depend on it, financially.

PE: Do you imagine how it's conceivable for machines to wake up, in terms of present or future technology?

JS: Well, I portrayed that in Daughter of Elysium. The experience of Doggie waking up. I portrayed what I imagined would be, if I may call it, the mental experience of a machine waking up.

PE: But what would you have to build, that would give it the potential to just wake up?

JS: What we would have to build is something of the level of complexity, in terms of neuronal connections, of our own brains. Now, whether that will happen suddenly, or whether it will be a gradual evolution, you know, like, from rats, to dogs and cats, to apes, to humans. I don't know. I know that the kind of direction that Al is taking now is precisely the direction that will lead to machines that wake up. There was a time in the early development of computers, when we were developing machines in a direction opposite to the direction of human thought. That is, we were developing computation machines. Machines that would calculate, extremely accurately, as fast as possible. That's been most of the development of computers. And that is completely different from human hard-wiring, except for what you see in the case of the idiot savants-where you have these incredibly hard-wired, incredibly accurate memories, and computations, and so on. But also very inhuman, and these people are very unsuccessful, overall, as conscious beings. With that exception, most of the history of computers has been to create things that are completely unlike human brains.

But in the past decade, there is a segment of the computer development that has become a very serious part of the industry, where we've exhausted the kind of problems that are best solved by the straightforward, computational route. I forget who it was that said this, maybe it was Asimov that made the point that, in the early days it was felt that first computers would learn how to do easy things, like house-cleaning. And later on, they'd learn how to do hard things like piloting spaceships. (Laughter.) And, in fact, exactly the opposite is what happened. We have computers that pilot spaceships, no problem. But we have yet to build a computer that effectively cleans a house. Okay. So we're now starting to realize that [there] are a whole subset of very interesting problems, not just housecleaning, but the proverbial equivalent is, managing baggage at the Denver airport. I mean, there are all kinds of problems that our computers are very, embarrassingly bad at solving. And many of these problems, it turns out, are better solved by circuit structures that more closely resemble human structures. That is, that are nonlinear. Structures that will test out various possibilities, and make mistakes, and then select the best ones, and test those out, and change them a bit and make mistakes and then test out the best ones again. Machines that can, in effect, lie, because they're not perfect so they come up with answers [that] aren't exactly correct. (EMH laughs.) But, test them out. So, we're creating machines that are more imperfect, and yet, more creative, than the standard calculation processes. We're also creating machines that learn through experience. They claim that some of the little robots they're making at MIT now, have the intelligence of a cockroach. Okay. Now, a cockroach is actually, in terms of behaviorial complexity

EMH: They've lasted for 400 million years.

JS: Well, yeah, cockroaches are actually pretty advanced, so we should be pretty scared by that. If we can make something with the complexity of a cockroach, that's pretty far. You know, what will be coming next?

AG: Excuse me. You're talking about Rodney Brooks' work, right? The modular systems where you have the different processors?

JS: In that particular case I'm talking about the ones where they actually put it into a mini-robot that can sense its environment and walk over obstacles, and respond to things.

AG: That sounds like what Rodney Brooks is doing. And, as far as I know, he hasn't been working so much with the learning systems. Cockroaches are very successful, in terms of their evolutionary success. But they're not the world's brightest learners. Their behavior is still all hard-wired in.

JS: Well, so that means, you're telling me we still have a little way to go. Okay.

AG: Yeah, we have a long way to go. But I think we will get there. And I think it is a good approach that they're faking at MIT.

JS: That's just one of many approaches. The other fascinating approach is the software approach, the idea, and there has been some of this in science fiction, the idea that you will have conscious entities, composed entirely of software within a computer, within cyberspace, or whatever they call it. And, we are creating things that mimic life forms in that universe as well. I mean, there is a very deep analogy between the computer virus and the little animal virus. In informational terms they do the same thing. So, if we start creating programs which evolve, will they start sharing analogies to living cells? Okay. If, where you create a program, and you then mutate it in certain ways and you run a thousand ways and whichever version is most efficient, then, you mutate that one, and run those versions. You'll develop programs that are so complex that you could never have written that program, and yet, they perform functions more efficiently than any program you would write. This is, essentially, software life.

A Joan Slonczewski Bibliography

Still Forms on Foxfield (novel), 1980. A Door into Ocean (novel), 1986. The Wall Around Eden (novel), 1989. Daughter of Elysium (novel; sequel to A Door into Ocean), 1993. "Microbe" (short story), Analog, August 1995; The Year's Best Science Fiction (David G. Hartwell, ed.), 1996.

Last modified: July 14, 1998

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