• rgrump

An Unlikely Interview with Eric Schwitzgebel

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

The Dauphin’s Metaphysics explores a classic and very interesting question -- if you replicate a person’s experiences exactly, can you replicate the person? What makes a person who they are, nature or nurture? It’s a story about characters reinventing themselves in multiple ways. What drew you to this particular question, and to taking the approach to it that you did in this story?

I’d been thinking about “singularity upload” stories, like Greg Egan’s Diaspora, where characters destroy their biological bodies to have their mental patterns instantiated in a computational device. These stories raise fascinating questions about personal identity, but they have an air of unreality about them because they aren’t currently technologically possible, and who knows if they ever will be. (One of the best known skeptics about computer consciousness is John Searle, who was one of my PhD supervisors at Berkeley.)

So I wanted to write an upload story that didn’t require magic or future technology. My father was (among many other things) a licensed hypnotist, and there’s a large psychological literature on how easy it is to implant false childhood memories into people even without hypnosis, so that seemed a natural direction to develop the idea.

The center of the story is the Dauphin’s upload – but I thought it would be interesting to contrast the case of the Dauphin’s putatively being one person across two bodies with another case arguably interpretable as two different identities in a single body. Hence the story of Fu Hao’s radical break from her childhood self. Chemistry Professor Zeng, though not as fully explored, presents a more ordinary case of slow character change over time.

In your day job, you’re a Professor of Philosophy, and the Dauphin’s Metaphysics isn’t the first story you’ve written exploring philosophical questions. Are there new approaches that fiction allows you to take in thinking about these questions and concepts that you don’t find in your academic life? Does your fiction ever inform your academic work similar to the way it seems your academic work informs your fiction?

I got into writing fiction through writing detailed philosophical thought experiments, some on my philosophy blog, some in articles in philosophy journals. It seems to me that speculative fiction is the natural extension of the philosophical thought experiment. The human mind doesn’t work well when dealing with pure abstractions – we need to engage with specific examples to really work through our ideas, and the dry paragraph-long examples that philosophers tend to use in journal articles don’t very effectively engage the imagination and the emotions. If we want to reflect philosophically while using the human mind in several of its areas of strength – imagination, emotion, social thinking, concrete thinking – there is no better resource than fiction.

Historically, many philosophers have written fiction or fables – Plato, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre, just to name a few. And writers of speculative fiction are often very philosophically interesting, for instance, Borges, Stapledon (who was also an academic philosopher), Dick, Le Guin, Egan, and Chiang. To me, it’s surprising and disappointing that there isn’t more interaction between professional philosophers and writers of speculative fiction.

The expository essay is only one way of doing philosophy. Fiction is another. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.

I find it interesting that you chose the title Dauphin for your title character (I can’t find it in me to call him either protagonist or antagonist, and no other readily available descriptor — love interest, partner, foil, etc. — seem to work properly either). ‘Dauphin’ is not only a very European term, its use as a royal title is quite specific to one country during a specific time period, all of which would pre-date (I _think_) the time period of this story. What made you choose this word over ‘Taizi’? There are some other hints in the story that indicate this is a world where history has played out differently. What does this particular linguistic import tell us about the larger world of your story?

I intended a world that mingles East and West, with some elements unambiguously Chinese – the characters’ names, the city of Beijing, the reference to Daoist poetry, the view of Russians as “barbarians” – and other elements very specifically European – the French “Dauphin” for the heir apparent, the English-style fox hunt, “High Table” from Oxford, and the peculiarly German academic ranking system in which “Ordinary” is higher than “Extraordinary”. The alternative history that I imagine is one in which centuries before Fu Hao, a European empire conquered China and seeded it with some European institutions, then collapsed.

I did this partly as a way to make the world clearly my own, while still being able to draw on some of the reader’s knowledge about Eastern and Western traditions. But also, the core ideas of Fu Hao’s philosophy are adapted from David Hume and Derek Parfit, who are sometimes regarded as having a Buddhist-influenced or quasi-Buddhist view of the self. Fu Hao’s book title Treatise on Human Nature is a near-miss of the title of Hume’s most important book, Treatise of Human Nature, written when he was similarly young. So I picture Fu Hao as a kind of female, Chinese, David Hume – though with the very different personality that women sometimes adopt as a way of coping with extremely sexist academic environments.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

In early drafts of “The Dauphin’s Metaphysics”, there was a final scene after Fu Hao drinks the hemlock: Fu Hao five years later, as a little girl, trying to make sense of who she is – a “great philosopher” who will “think and think and think about stuff” and who can’t quite keep track of whether Jisun Fei is her daddy or her husband. I imagine Fu Hao and Jisun Fei reincarnating in body after body over the centuries, sometimes parents to each other, sometimes intellectual partners, sometimes lovers.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

I’m so excited about my work – both expository philosophy and philosophical fiction! There just aren’t enough hours to do all the things I’m bursting to do. Here’s some of it:

Stories: My two favorite stories in draft are “THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL” (all-caps sic), in which boy who lives in an infinite library follows a rabbit down into the stacks, hoping to discover the nature of his universe; and “Fafnir and Jackie”, in which a toy dragon repeatedly has his memory erased and starts anew, programmed to fall utterly in love with whoever he sees first upon waking.

I’ve also got stories in the works featuring a society’s singularity upload that goes wrong; the ethics of creating a robot who wants nothing more than to die on a mission to the sun; a giant alien who falls in love with the United States viewed as a group intelligence; a man given the choice between and ordinary life and a billion years of repetitive bliss on a seeming dance floor; and a bored superintelligence the size of the solar system.

Expository philosophy: For this, check out my academic website. I have forthcoming essays arguing that if we someday create human-grade AIs we will likely owe more to them than we owe to human strangers, because we would have parent-like or god-like responsibility for their existence and features; arguing that we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility that the cosmos is radically different than we think it is (for example, that we might actually be AIs living in a small, simulated world); celebrating the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s contradictory views on death and self; and systematically exploring the moral behavior of ethics professors.

Editorial work: I’m working on a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy on science fiction and philosophy, with essays from philosophers plus a couple of awesome new stories by prominent SF writers who’ve done graduate work in philosophy (Eric Linus Kaplan and R. Scott Bakker). I’ve also put together a list of 41 professional philosophers’ recommendations of “philosophical SF” – ten recommendations from each philosopher, along with brief pitches pointing to the interest of each work. (Full version here, abbreviated versions forthcoming in The Philosophers’ Magazine and Susan Schneider’s Science Fiction and Philosophy).

Blog: Readers might also want to check out my blog, The Splintered Mind, where I post at least weekly on issues in philosophy, psychology, and speculative fiction.

  • rgrump

An Unlikely Interview with E. Saxey

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

The Librarian’s Dilemma deals with that tricky question of whether some information should be restricted ‘for our own good’, or whether all information should be free. You explore a similar theme in your story Melioration, which looks at free speech versus hate speech and ponders whether we’d be better off if people simply had hateful words plucked from their vocabulary entirely. What interests you about these questions? What led you to the varying approaches you took on the idea in these two stories?

It is tricky! I’ve been very influenced by writers like Foucault, and I think that power often works in the world through words. (An obvious recent example is the UK dispute over the terms ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ – these terms impose identities, imply histories, and prompt specific responses.)
Melioration was a fantasy exploration of a desire I sometimes have, to stop people using certain words. A slur word gets charged up, made more concrete and powerful, whenever it’s used, and it also releases energy into the debate. Sometimes you just want to break that circuit.

Similarly, with The Librarian’s Dilemma: I’m sometimes furious at a book. At that moment, I want an omniscient wise person to wade in and whisk the book out of circulation/existence. But that’s, of course, rubbish: there’s no such person; there’s no objective answer to many ethical issues; any whisking will hurt vulnerable people first. And I don’t have a decent alternative suggestion for action.

These stories are both akin to worrying at a loose tooth – they’re not proposed solutions!

On your blog, you frequently write about sexuality, gender, and narrative theory. In a recent post, you talk about the classic coming out story and how it become the sole template for queer stories for a while. You point out the way it frequently shuts out identities that are not cis-white-males. Do you see a shift in the kind of queer stories that are being told today? What are the stories that aren’t being told that you’d like to see more often? What are some examples of narratives dealing with gender and sexuality that you would recommend?

I do see more stories with not-straight or not-cis characters, which aren’t about the fact of their ‘difference’ itself (e.g. coming out for queer individuals, transition narratives for trans people – I think these are valuable stories but can become limiting).

Recent reads: Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy, and Philip Reeve’s Railhead both take advantage of SF/Fantasy rules to have gender-ambiguous characters living intriguing lives, and pushing along the plot. I’ve just started Mary Anne Mohanraj’s The Stars Change, which is both raunchy and lovely, and I’m dipping into the anthology Long Hidden.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

I’d go to the university in Year of the Griffin (Dianna Wynne Jones). It’s trying to re-invent itself after years of being a training school for naff magical quests – the students and staff have been bogged down in very flimsy, showy magic. So it would be an exciting time to be on the staff: research going on, big debates in the early hours.

I’d like to work in the library, actually – I’d try to expand it, and bring in new ideas from different parts of the world. I’d keep it open late, have a kettle and some biscuits in the corner.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I worked for six months in a convent, a Victorian redbrick place built for hundreds of nuns. There were only a few sisters left, which left empty corridors round huge courtyards. I was lucky to stay there; after I left, it was turned into luxury flats, and the sisters went to live with another order. I helped with retreats. Guests came along to meditate and pray and be calm, and I did practical stuff to support that -- the paddling under the swan.

I’ve not yet written anything set in a convent but I do keep coming back to nuns. They’ve got a spiritual calling to live together, and a constant prayerful routine to their lives -- but then they’re still just cohabiting humans, sharing space 24/7 and getting on each other’s nerves. It’s a fascinating negotiation.

  • rgrump

An Unlikely Interview with Sean Robinson

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species takes minotaurs beyond Greek mythology, and posits them as essential to every culture. Are monsters and stories about monsters an essential part of humanity? What do a culture’s monsters tell us about that culture, what they value and what they feel? Why did you choose minotaurs in particular for your story?

From my perspective, monsters are what looks back at us when we look in the mirror. They’re a reflection of ourselves stripped bare. It’s the face that we would see if we didn’t wrap ourselves up in the packaging of society’s rules. It’s somehow both exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally terrifying. So yes, I think stories about monsters are essential to what it means to be human. Whether it’s a child-eating lamia, or a shiny vampire, monsters speak in a voice that’s so often otherwise silent. I think monsters say the things the culture is afraid of, gives voice to its honest truths and fears (which aren’t always different). It’s letting go. I came to the idea of minotaurs because they’re always depicted as singular. There’s only one, and its trapped in the center of a labyrinth…waiting. Waiting for the Atheneans to feed it. Waiting for Theseus to slay it. Waiting for Minor to love him, or Pasiphaë to save him. I think all of that speaks so much to the human experience.

On your website, you state that a particular area of interest in scholarly research for you is queer themes in fairy tales. Many people tend to think of fairy tales in their sanitized versions, stripped of the majority of their violence and sexuality. What queer themes and stories can be reclaimed by going back to older versions of these tales? Do you have any plans for your scholarly research, such as a non-fiction book somewhere down the road?

Oh gosh. You went to my website! Ack. Faerie Tales are such a rich place when you go looking. As you said, the stories we’re told by Disney in modern day have been scrubbed of its incest, cannibalism, and creative murders. Which is sort of a shame. If you look at the history of stories, you see depictions of relationships between people that don’t have labels but are--from my perspective--queer. Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Mesopotamian mythology, Achilles and Patroclus in Greek mythos. More modern stories, like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” also echo some of these themes. Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid” in response to the marriage of his long time, unrequited, love Edvard Collin. I think they’re all interesting places to go. I’ve had the fortune of presenting at MythCon, the annual convention of the Mythopoeic Society. They were kind enough to let me read a paper on queer themes in CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was profoundly humbling. My day job keeps me busy, so no non-fiction book that I can think of at the moment. But I’ll keep puttering.

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, in her Nyeusigrube series wrote about a place called Ramsa High School, in a town that borders the seat of government for vampires (non-sparkly, and written before that other series came out). As a teenager, I wanted to go there, so as one of the characters did, I could become a vampire. It’s not Hogwarts or Brakebills, but I’d be game.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

It is possible to pass out from laughing too hard. I learned this from personal experience while playing a game called “Telephone Pictionary”. I went to stand up and woke up on the floor about a minute later.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I have been a professional firebreather for a couple of years, does that count? I’ve given the talent (craziness?) to one character that I’ve written. It got her out of a tough scene that neither of us could figure out a different way out of.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

So, I am a very mainstream kind of reader. But! Sharon Green did a series called “The Blending” and I love them. It’s eight books and while they are my dirty pleasure, I don’t know if they’re what you should drop into your TBR pile. The characters are really well realized, the world building is great. There is a major romantic plot line that is threaded through each of the (exceptionally) large cast and it maintains its structure throughout all eight books., the characters are distinct and I re-read the whole series a couple times a year.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I’ve always got stuff on the burner. At the moment, my only solid publication dates are in 2016. I’ve got a short story about a drowning sailor coming out in Kaleidatrope and a fairy tale re-imagining coming out through Mirror Dance. You can always check out my site though about upcoming releases!

  • rgrump

Journal of Unlikely Academia Issue 12, October 2015

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

Table of Contents

Follow Me Down by Nicolette Barischoff
Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species by Sean Robinson
The Librarian’s Dilemma by E. Saxey
The Dauphin’s Metaphysics by Eric Schwitzgebel
Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood by Julia August
And Other Definitions of Family by Abra Staffin-Wiebe
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat by Pear Nuallak
The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye by Rose Lemberg

Editors’ Note:

Welcome, dear readers, to Unlikely Story #12: The Journal of Unlikely Academia. This time around, rather than offering you a specialized subject, we are exploring the pursuit of knowledge itself. From the hallowed halls of venerable supernatural institutions, to fieldwork on an alien space station, and the shelves of your university library and beyond, the authors in this issue are celebrating learning in all its forms.

Here you will find scholars searching for the truth behind monsters, and monsters searching for the truth within themselves. You’ll find librarians struggling to set information free, and teachers struggling to open the doors of learning to everyone equally, especially those society most often overlooks and forgets. You’ll find metaphysical questions, the place where art and myth intersect, issues of translation, and an unorthodox and extremely personal method of studying alien culture.

So sit up straight, tuck in your shirt, spit out that gum, and pay attention. Yes, this will be on the test. Luckily, the test only has one question — did you enjoy these stories? If so, please tell your family, your neighbors, your friends, and random strangers on the street. There’s always room for a few more bodies in the Unlikely Story classroom.

Cover art by Patricio Beteo
  • rgrump

Announcing… Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

As you may remember, a few months back we ran a Kickstarter to fund an expanded version of our April Fool’s mini issue, The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia. The Kickstarter was successful, and we opened the floodgates to another round of clown submissions. It took some time, but we diligently worked our way through the many excellent stories sent to us, and made some tough choices along the way. Now, we’re thrilled to announce the full line up for Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix!

The Table of Contents will include the five stories originally published in Unlikely Story #11.5: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia.

Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do by Derek Manuel
Perfect Mime by Sara K. McNeilly
A Million Tiny Ropes by Virginia M. Mohlere
Everyone’s A Clown by Caroline M. Yoachim
Break the Face in the Jar by the Door by Carlie St. George

Joining those stories are seventeen brand new pieces of flash fiction, plus a smattering of new clown facts (still to be determined -- we haven’t forgotten about the authors who submitted them, we promise!). Those new stories, in no particular order, are:

The Game by Mari Ness
Thou Antic Death by Kristen Roupenian
Mr. Boingo Saves the World by J.H. Pell
Melpomene’s Heirs by Evan Dicken
Stilts by Line Henriksen
A Distant Honk by Holly Schofield
Gags, Bits, and Business by T. Jane Berry
Clown’s Syndrome by Joe Nazare
A Silent Comedy by Cate Gardner
Queen and Fool by Dayle Dermatis
Clowns of the Creosote Plains by Chillbear Latrigue
Pushpin and Pullpin by Charles Payseur
An Argument for Clowning on the Sabbath by Jeff Wolf
Whaling with Clowns by Chris Kuriata
Clown Shoes by Cassandra Khaw
God’s Children by Jason Arias
Clown Car, Driven Once, Never Emptied by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez

We can’t wait to share this amazing anthology with you! In the meantime, keep an eye on twitter and this blog. More details about the anthology, Kickstarter rewards, and our upcoming Unlikely Academia issue, will be coming soon.

  • rgrump

Congratulations, Kat Howard!

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

We’re thrilled to see Kat Howard’s All of Our Past Places from Unlikely Story #9: The Journal of Unlikely Cartography included among the finalists for this year’s WSFA Small Press Award. Congratulations to Kat and all her fellow nominees. We’re proud to have published such a wonderful story, and happy to see it gain wider recognition. The winner will be announced this October at Capclave. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed until then!

  • rgrump

Another Slush Status Update

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

It’s been a while since we posted a general update about the status of submissions to the Coulrophobia anthology. We had hoped to have all our responses out by now, but alas, work and life and other such things intervened. As of the moment, we have responded with either a hold or a pass to all Coulrophobia story submissions received on or before 5/27/15. We are considering the clown facts separately, and we have not responded to the majority of those one way or the other yet. As often happen, the bulk of our submissions came in within the last few days of our submission window, so we still have quite a few stories to work through. Thank you all for you patience, and for sending us such wonderful work. We’ll do our best to get back to you as soon as possible. If you sent us a story on or before 5/27, and you haven’t heard back from us, please query.

  • rgrump

Submission Status Update

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

Well, as frequently happens, pesky things like day jobs and server problems have gotten in the way of fun things, like clowns. As a result, we’re running a bit behind on our promised 4 week response time for Unlikely Coulrophobia submissions. At the moment, we’ve responded to everything received on or before May 3, 2015. Everything else is still in the queue. If you received an initial response from us saying that we got your story, then rest assured it is in good hands and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you for your patience, and thank you for sending us so many wonderful stories. We can’t wait to share this anthology with you!

As for the Unlikely Academia issue, our aim is to publish it in July. We’ll do our best to keep you all updated.

  • rgrump

Announcing the Journal of Unlikely Academia ToC

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

It’s been a long wait, but we’re delighted to announce the Table of Contents for the upcoming Journal of Unlikely Academia. We received a lot of excellent submissions, and we had some difficult choices to make, but we promise it’s worth the wait. It’s going to be a wonderful issue and we can’t wait to share it with you, which we’ll be doing in early July. So, when July rolls around, you’ll be able to read the following stories (in no particular order) featuring the unlikely world of academia, learning, and the things people do in the pursuit of knowledge…

Follow Me Down by Nicolette Barischoff

And Other Definitions of Family by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat by Pear Nuallak

The Dauphin’s Metaphysics by Eric Schwitzgebel

The Librarian’s Dilemma by E. Saxey

Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species by Sean Robinson

Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood by Julia August

The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye by Rose Lemberg

So, please join us in July for The Journal of Unlikely Academia. It’s going to be fabulous, and we can’t wait for you to read it.

  • rgrump

An Unlikely Mini Interview with Caroline M. Yoachim

Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.

Do you find clowns to be a) creepy b) downright terrifying c) mildly amusing d) laugh out loud funny e) some combination of the above or f) none of the above (please supply your own alternate adjective/description)?

It really depends on the clown and what they happen to be doing at the time. A clown doing some juggling at the state fair? Amusing! A clown with red eyes and pointy teeth knocking on the window of my car? Significantly less amusing.

On a related note, what is you earliest clown-related memory, and how did it scar you and or shape your view of clowns?

When I was two years old, my mom made me a clown costume for Halloween. She spent a lot of time working on it, and it was kind of big, so I wore it for Halloween three years in a row. Maybe I developed a profound empathy for clowns, having been one myself. . . or maybe the costume had no impact on me whatsoever.

What lead you to take the particular approach to clowns you used in your story, Everyone’s a Clown?

I was looking around for ideas for clown flash stories, and decided to start by searching for clown songs on YouTube. Eventually I found a video of “Everybody Loves A Clown” where a little girl stands and stares at Gary Lewis while he sings the entire song. It was actually kind of creepy to have a kid just stand there and stare, like she could see something I couldn’t--and that was the seed for the story.

Unrelated to clowns (or not, as the case may be), what else are you working on/have you published recently/have upcoming that you’d like people to know about?

I actually do have another clown story! “The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown,” appeared in the final issue of Electric Velocipede and was later podcast at The Drabblecast.

I also have several stories that have nothing to do with clowns. “Four Seasons in the Forest of Your Mind” is forthcoming in the May/June issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I recently did a “Tasting Menu” of food-related flash stories at Daily Science Fiction. I have a complete list of my publication on my website.