Shariann Lewitt is a creative writing teacher at MIT and a sci-fi legend. She’s written 14 novels and contributed to 10 anthologies. Her research is extensive and her work prolific–so we were lucky to sit her down and get some answers to our most burning sci-fi and writing questions. Check out her answers below!
What drew you to science fiction as a genre? What are you favorite parts of writing sci-fi? What are the challenges?
I’ve been a science fiction reader since I was nine years old. My father worked in the space program, so in some ways I grew up seeing science fiction become reality. I always wanted to be an astronaut, but being very nearsighted disqualified me back before Lasik surgery was accepted, so writing about the future and possibilities of space travel was as close as I could come to that dream.
My favorite part of writing science fiction is the extrapolation. We call it world building—what elements do I choose to start with, and how do those affect the culture and the story? In Rebel Sutra I had a hot volcanic world, and that became important both in what happened on the world and how that planet fit into the larger interplanetary Empire. Spinning current theories into what they could possibly produce is wonderful.
The challenges of science fiction are also the great rewards, I think. Perhaps the biggest is using science accurately. I try to avoid faster than light travel and try to remain true to what we know or to theory as we understand it. I do know that as scientists discover more about our universe, we will find that ideas we had were wrong. I have to accept that, and really I’m excited by all the new discoveries we make! But it can be challenging as a writer, especially if a new discovery is made when you’re in the middle of a story that depends on an old idea. Sometimes things have to get thrown away.
Another challenge in science fiction is to keep the focus on the story and the people. While the science may inspire me, may create the vision, a story always revolves around people (no matter if they’re humans from Earth or aliens from a distant solar system) trying to make the best decisions they can.
You teach writing to a lot of hard core science students at MIT. Does their research ever inform your writing? Do you guys talk about sci-fi?
My students are some of the most inspiring, exciting people in the world! I talk about science fiction with my students all the time! Many—possibly most—of them are avid science fiction readers and some of them have turned me on to books and authors I haven’t read. We have a great time, and there’s a wonderful science fiction society here on campus with a huge library in the student center.
I learn so much from their research, and more from their interests. They will talk not only about what they are working on now, but what they might want to work on in five or ten years, which is often beyond anything I’ve ever imagined!
Science fiction can be divided into science fiction and engineering fiction, and students at MIT tend to be interested in either science or engineering. Science refers to the pursuit and discovery of pure knowledge. Engineers, on the other hand, apply that knowledge to creating products in the real world. A scientist might study how proteins fold and how that affects certain kinds of disease, while an engineer will take this knowledge to create a device to make proteins fold in the correct manner to cure the disease.
Some of your science fiction books—Interface Masque, Blind Justice, Cyberstealth, and Memento Mori—have recently been made available as e-books. What are your thoughts on the changes the publishing industry has undergone in the past few years?
Publishing tends to be very old fashioned and people don’t like change. I love paper books, but I love my Kindle, too—I love the fact that I can store hundreds of books and carry them around on such a small, light device. In the end I think that ebooks will be a good thing but the transition will be difficult. People were pretty upset when Gutenberg invented movable type, too! It will take a while to sort out and I have no doubt there will be difficulties, but in the end people will always want stories. Anthropologists have yet to find a human society where people do not tell stories, so we’ll always be around. Eventually we’ll understand how to make it work, though I tell my students this is the job for their generation. Young people who aren’t attached to the old forms are going to lead the way to the future.
You wrote Memento Mori, a dystopian novel about a killer plague, in 1995—years before the current dystopian craze. Have you been keeping up with recent dystopian titles? What are some of your favorite dystopians—both classic and just-released?
I find this question amusing because I don’t think of my book as particularly dystopian, nor do I look for dystopian novels at all. Yes, Memento Mori can be considered dystopian, but that was never in my mind. I started out thinking about resistant bacteria, especially TB. I have a background in biology and was reading about new cases of TB that were resistant to antibiotics–and far more dangerous–and how the disease was coming back. From there, I started researching epidemiology, and from there I went to the Plague in 14th century Europe. I discovered an entire area of academic inquiry called Plague Studies and plunged in, and that’s where I got a lot of the cultural disintegration in Memento Mori.
While the plague in 14th century Europe caused chaos and society to break down, it also created the foundation for the Renaissance as Europe recovered. I tried to show intimations of that at the end of Memento Mori; Johanna survives. Not everyone dies, the plague runs its course and in the end a new society will emerge. We have witnessed the dark night of the society’s soul but also the glimmers of the light of the new day. I don’t think of that as dystopian at all.
I don’t look for books that are dystopian just as I don’t look for stories that are particularly happy. I have a dark sensibility; I don’t require a happy ending to find a book satisfying. But I don’t dislike books with happy endings either. The ending should fit the story, the theme and the characters. What is most important to me is that the ending is honest; that whether it is harsh and difficult or happy and resolved or somewhere in between, the resolution feels true to the characters.
Samuel R. Delaney, Joanna Russ, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Neil Gaiman, and Neil Stephanson are among my favorite authors and some of their work has been called dystopian, but I never thought of it that way.
You’ve written both full-length novels and short stories for anthologies. When you get an idea for a new story, do you immediately have a sense for the length at which it will work best? Did any of your novels start as short stories, or vice versa?
It often takes me a little while to figure out whether an idea wants to be a short story or a novel. A couple of novels started out as short stories that just grew, but none of the short stories started out to be novels! When I first got the idea for the book I’m working on right now I thought it would be a short story. I was listening to a song in the gym, a song I know very well and have heard a hundred times at least. But right then I was suddenly struck by an anomaly in the story—it’s an old ballad—and wondered how the character in the song knew how to overpower the very strong enemy, which seemed unlikely. At first I thought only of the one problem and thought it would be a short story. Then I wondered, “Who would train her?” and suddenly an historic answer came to mind. More and more pieces came together and I realized it was bigger than I originally intended.
Many younger writers assume that a novel needs lots of plot, lots of events happening, so they pack lots and lots of action into the story and rush around from event to event. Really, novels ask questions and they don’t stop asking questions. How did the character learn this? From whom? How did the teacher get there? Why does the bad guy think he’s a good guy (because no one really thinks they’re a bad guy)? A short story only needs to answer a few question and you’re satisfied. An novel keeps asking and getting longer and more complex, but it comes from the inside, not from making more events.
What was it like combining a historically steeped city like Venice with a futuristic society in Interface Masque?
Oh, I really like this question! There were many reasons to set Interface Masque in Venice. The area around Venice, the Veneto, is one of the high tech centers in Europe now. Old cities, ancient cities, go through cycles and rise back to prominence throughout history.
Mostly I wanted to set Interface Masque in Venice because of the history of Carnivale and masking. I wrote the book in the 1990s when the internet was in its infancy. I spent a lot of time online then and we were all aware of how much we could hide behind our keyboards—“On the internet no one knows you’re a dog.” Now it’s a cliché but then it was a watchword. Until Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, Venice hosted a practice of Carnivale unknown in the rest of the world. While most Carnivale periods last for a week or less, in Venice it lasted months. Everyone from servants to the nobility to priests and nuns would wear costumes and masks whenever they left home. No one knew who anyone was in public—which is just like being on the internet! How do we know who anyone is? How do we know whom we can trust? How do we present ourselves, and how do we change this presentation in different places?
Venetian costumes were often unisex and covered the entire body; often one could not tell if someone in a masked costume was male or female. This is still common on the internet, especially in places like Second Life. Look at all the controversy on G+ over the issue of using “real” names, and defining what “real names” means. How do we verify who we are, that we are legitimate?
To me, the history of Venice and the reality of online life informed each other. We are not so different from the Venetians of the sixteenth century. Our technology may be more complex but our behavior when we can hide our identities is pretty much the same.
Science fiction lets us play with what we may become, but also reminds us that as humanity progresses we also stay the same. As societies, we have turned away from slavery and infanticide and treating women as chattel so we are making progress. But we are still people. We still love and hate, still want and fear, still act from greed or for revenge. We can read the oldest documents of our species and see people we recognize, people who show cruelty and desire power and threaten war, but who also show great compassion and wisdom and courage. Some of our greatest traits are our oldest traits, and no matter how wonderful our technologies and how far we explore among the stars, it is our heart, our courage, our curiosity as a species that will always matter.