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WesternSFA
A Chat with Carolyn Ives Gilman
by Christina Paige
Carolyn Ives Gilman is the author of  Dark Orbit (Click here for review), endorsed by Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as Halfway Human, Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, and numerous short stories.

CP: I grew up in DC, so I’m curious about how you perceive our Capital.  How did you come to live there?

CIG: I moved to DC three years ago to take a job at the Smithsonian, as an exhibit developer at the National Museum of the American Indian.  I fell in love with DC in about two minutes.  Contrary to its reputation, it’s a very young and hip town, mobbed with Millennials who have come here to change the world.  It’s impossible to go to a party (and there are lots of parties) without meeting someone who has a jaw-dropping job like investigating war crimes or sending spacecraft to Pluto. 

CP: Are/were any members of your own family indigenous? Where does your red hair come from?

CIG: The red hair comes from Neanderthals.  Or so I like to imagine.  They have found the gene for blue eyes (which I also have) in the Neanderthal genome, so I now picture them as ruddy, Celtic types.  To my knowledge, I don’t have any Native ancestry.  It could be that I am expiating the sins of my ancestors by working for the Indian Museum, since I am a seventh-generation descendant of  a man who helped force the Lenape out of their homeland in the 18th century.  However, I only learned that recently.  How I got interested in American Indian history and culture goes back a lot further.  It may have something to do with the fact that I grew up in Minnesota in the heyday of AIM, and they seemed radical, angry, and exciting.

CP: What affects do the Museum exhibits have on visitors?

CIG: We are trying to change everyone’s perception of American Indians – to torch the idealized, nostalgic stereotype of people frozen in time and replace it with a more contemporary, truthful vision of Native America.  The National Museum of the American Indian was created to give Native people themselves a voice, and it is run and staffed largely by American Indians—in fact, some of the same people who were radicals when I was young, and are now elder statesmen.  My job there is not to say what I think, but to listen carefully to what they want to say and figure out a way of communicating it to the public.  This becomes complicated because there is no “Indian perspective” on anything.  There are multiple perspectives, and disagreements that go back 200 years.  We do a lot of talking.

CP: How do your work experiences infuse your writing?

CIG: I try to stay away from writing about anything related to my job in any literal way.  But of course one’s life experiences creep into the fiction.  I find myself writing a lot about first contact and cultural differences.  A number of my viewpoint characters are interstellar travelers who find themselves immersed in foreign cultures.  But I amuse myself by giving those cultures alien environments to cope with, and beliefs and principles that go with those environments. 

CP: In Dark Orbit, a band of scientists are sent on a mission to study the recently re-discovered planet Iris and its anomalies. They wind up encountering the descendants of the original colonists, who live in darkness underground and rely on other senses, other modes of perception.  The descriptions are quite beautiful! Did you do any sensory deprivation as a form of research?

CIG: No, I am not that brave; but I read a lot about it.  It was a challenge, writing major portions of the book without using any visual clues.  You would not believe how deeply our language is threaded through with visual assumptions.  I found myself visualizing the characters and the town of Torobe in my mind, because I couldn’t think of them any other way, but then I had to go back and excise all the information that could only come from sight.  Characterizing people without being able to say what they looked like, and keeping the setting vivid while relying only on other senses, taught me a lot about how we think.

CP: I have one friend, legally blind since birth, who relies on her sense of smell for information, especially about people and their moods or states.  It is absolutely useless to try to lie to her.  For the Irisians, manipulation of aromas is an art form, a science, and akin to magic: very powerful, and consequently, potentially very, very dangerous.  What is it about the brain that makes such inimical sense of scents?

CIG: I think smell is located in a very old, deep part of the brain, and we are not ordinarily even aware of the information we receive from it.  Most people do not train or cultivate their sense of smell, because sight drowns it out and distracts us, but I think we all have potential to learn more from it.  In Dark Orbit, I suggest that there may be other senses, even more deeply buried in the inner brain, that we are almost entirely unaware of. 

CP: Two major themes of the story are, how do the ways we perceive affect us, and how do the ways we perceive others affect them? There is an especially poignant example with one character, Moth, who has been “beminded” in a way that limits her. Whether subtly or carelessly, lovingly or brutally, all the characters are doing this to each other almost all the time.  Care to comment?

CIG: Someone wise, possible Ursula Le Guin, said that science fiction literalizes metaphor.  This is a good example.  We would all admit that we are shaped by the people around us.  But the people of Iris are shaped by others in a literal, physical way.  They can’t shrug it off.  It raises the question of whether we ought to be paying more attention to this effect in our own lives.  When you stop to think of it, maybe it’s not so metaphorical after all. 

CP: There is also the planet Orem, where one character has extraordinary adventures. The customs on Orem are restrictive and terribly repressive; many people are treated brutally, as if they were sub-human.  I felt tremendous rage, and sorrow, as I read those portions.  Have you gotten feedback from readers whose life experiences have been similar to those described in the book?

CIG: Not yet, but clearly I had a lot of material to draw on.  There are parts of the world I can’t read about any longer because the news makes one feel so angry and powerless.

CP: Was the book easy to write?

CIG: No.  I abandoned it several times because it was so hard, but I kept coming back because the effort seemed worthwhile.  When I finally figured out how to tell the story, the book came together quite suddenly.  I wrote the last chapter in a single week.

CP: Was it cathartic, depicting the scientists on the mission with all their rivalries and contentions? Reading, I thought those scenes were very funny, but if I had to actually work with those people I might be more irritated than amused.

CIG: Ha ha, you caught me.  I plead guilty.  Anyone working in an educational or research institution has probably met some of the scientists and managers on the Iris expedition.  They are not even exaggerated by much.  It has irritated me for a long time that the personnel in science fiction are all so professional and adult, when real scientists are full of infuriating foibles.  But I’ve found that the most difficult people in reality can make the best characters in fiction.

CP: Of the protagonist Sara Callicot you wrote: “Sara had grown up in a Balavati family, which meant she had been taught to reject all articles of faith except disrespect for authority, the lodestone of her life.” I love the way you demonstrate that about Sara in the first pages, even before you explain it. Ashok, another Balavati, gets an even better write up. Would you tell more of the history of that culture?

CIG: I’ve always intended to get around to writing more about the Balavatis.  They originate from a planet in the same system as the Vind, and claim to have been conquered by the ancestors of the Vind—an assertion the Vinds (being pacifists) indignantly deny.  Balavatis are natural anarchists who take it as their role to tweak and undermine Vind power, yet they are as susceptible as the rest of us to the seductive lure of power. 

CP: Sara seems such a storied character; has she shown up elsewhere, in any short stories? Have you more of her adventures in mind? I’d love to encounter Sara again. Honestly, I haven’t enjoyed a heroine this much since Festina Ramos.

CIG: Hmm, I’ll have to take that as a suggestion. 

CP: I couldn’t figure out why there was an agenda to sabotage the Intuitive Scientist Thora. What did the mastermind of the project hope to accomplish? I could understand if it were agents from Orem wanting her dead; to merely mess with her seems… pointless. Who would want to?

CIG: The ways of the Magisterium are inscrutable.

CP: Another striking character is the Security officer Atlabatlow.   What do you imagine happens for him after the events of Dark Orbit?

CIG: I hope he gets promoted.  Of course, it’ll be 58 years before he gets back home, and anything can happen in that time.  

CP: What was the  science fiction book that struck a chord when you read it?

CIG: As a teenager, I was entranced with Asimov’s Foundation series.  I was on a ship going from Athens to Crete, and I could pay no attention to what was around me, I was so caught up in the story. 

CP: What have been some of your favorite books over the years?

CIG: There have been too many to list.  But let me give a shout out to some authors I’ve been reading recently: Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Iain Banks, China Mieville, and Peter Watts. 

CP: You reference Plato’s Parable of the Cave in a way that makes it strikingly relevant. Thank-you for that; the Politeia is one of my favorite of the Dialogues.  There’s another profound example of how an observer affects the reality of what is observed: translations. The Comford version of The Republic and the Allan Bloom translation have very different effects on readers, because the two men had diametrically different attitudes towards Plato, and regarding their personal responsibility as translators.  How did you come to read Plato, and what do you think of the Dialogues you read?

CIG: I met Plato the way most people do, in college.  My impression of what he was talking about has evolved over the years.  Then, I thought all his talk of archetypes was an intellectual abstraction, a theoretical speculation.  Now I think he may have been talking about something of which he had experience—actual sensory evidence, though not by the senses we normally use.  It is also interesting to reinterpret his ideas in light of our new insights about information—the algorithms that give matter and energy their pattern and structure—as a separate and necessary part of reality.  We talk about it differently today, but we’re still working on his fundamental insights, and we still have a lot to learn.

CP: Are there other writers in your family?

CIG: Yes.  In fact, I grew up thinking writing was just something you do.  Everyone wrote.  But no one else in my family writes science fiction.  I do have a remote family connection to Charlotte Perkins Gilman (by marriage, not blood relation).

CP: I love her story, “When I Was a Witch”, and the other funny, upbeat ones that never seem to be included in anthologies, while the depressing ones are.
Which scientific advances/discoveries are not getting enough attention, not getting the development and applications that they deserve, or that we need?

CIG: Everyone should be paying attention to something they are calling “quantum teleportation”—a silly name, because the only thing being transported is information.  But information is everything.  It is the beginning of a potential system of instantaneous communication, like the PPC device in my novel.  Instantaneous communication would transform space exploration.  You could control a robot on Titan with a joystick.

CP: Would you want to travel to the moon if a base were established – or other off-planet destinations?

CIG: I’d sign up in a nanosecond.

CP: What about SF conventions? Do you ever attend them? Is you do, what events do you enjoy?

CIG: Yes, I’ve been going to conventions for years.  The first time I went, I felt like an anthropologist in some strange alien culture.  Today, I feel more like I’m among my own people.  However, I tend to gravitate toward conventions focusing on the written word, like ReaderCon, WisCon, and our local convention Capclave.  The thing I enjoy most is talking to fans.  You meet the darndest people.

CP: So those are the cons to attend to meet you in person; good to know.  Thanks for writing the kind of SF that takes us to new worlds, at the same time it shows us ourselves.    

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