Shimmer #21: Seth Dickinson

Tell us how “Anna Saves Them All” came to be.
This is a really hard question to answer, because the answer is so embarrassing. The story comes from two places, and if you want to know about the dignified place that makes me look like a credible writer, please just – just show me mercy and skip ahead to question two.

This is the other place. I was young and I really, really adored Legos. Lego made these action figures, so of course I adored them too, adored them enough that I thought it would be a good idea to write an epic fanfiction in which their world was invaded by hegemonistic aliens. Ssrin was a character in that story, and she outlived it – she and a little bit of the premise. What if our love of dualistic good-and-evil stories was rooted in a cosmological truth? What if an alien civilization decided to reprogram that truth? And what if one of them decided she was on the wrong side? Maybe I should have outgrown the story, but, well, here I am.

A few years ago I tried to redraft Ssrin’s story as a thriller set in Iraqi Kurdistan. That was where Anna came from. I wasn’t satisfied with the manuscript, but I couldn’t get the two of them, or their peculiar tortured friendship, out of my head. If you look at this story carefully, you can probably still see hints of the broader scope of a novel.

In “Kumara,” and “Anna Saves Them All,” the protagonist must make a choice about who lives and who dies. Several other stories are populated by hunters and killers. What draws you to write about people in these situations?
This is a particularly tricky question to answer with dignity, coming off that last one!

I’m fascinated by the clash between utilitarian tactics – this is what we need to do to win – and the deontological imperative – this is what’s right, and damn the circumstances. I feel like it drives so many problems in the real world. You can do the right thing, and lose. Or you can do the wrong thing, and win, and maybe accomplish greater good further down the line, using the power you earned. But at what price?

I’m drawn to this archetype: the character who is gifted with and cursed by the ability to make hard choices. But I don’t think it’s an ability people should admire uncritically. In Kumara someone tries to cheat the choice, driven by love, but her cheat is arguably more monstrous than the problem itself. In this story Anna plays the choice straight, twice, but…I’d be curious how many people think she made the right decision. She accepted a monster’s rules – maybe the real hard choice is to reject the atrocity at any cost.

Constructing Sophie’s Choice scenarios in fiction is very tricky. If the choice is contrived, I think the author risks coming off as a bit of a sadist. I come back to these scenarios because I think they hurt characters in fascinating ways, but I do worry that I’m glorifying them too much, especially when they involve real people and real tragedies. I obsessed over research on Al-Anfal, and even still, I’m prepared to be called out on my handling of it.

This all sounds very thinky! I care about the pain and strength people show in impossible situations. And I’m queasily fascinated by the idea that certain kinds of agonizing, terrible problems could become strengths under extreme conditions.

You’ve said of your studies, “Cognitive science has unearthed a constellation of enigmas…” How has the study of cognitive science affected your writing?
Sometimes it’s very obvious – like the role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in “A Tank Only Fears Four Things.” A lot of the time it’s subtle. I think the most important thing I learned was this: people believe a lot of things they don’t know they believe, beliefs we can detect in the lab through subtle behavioral and neurological techniques.

That’s important because – if someone comes to me and says ‘you know, this thing you wrote was kind of racist’, or ‘I feel like you are making casual use of a terrible problem that really hurt a lot of people, and that’s not very respectful’, I can’t say ‘oh, but I meant well!’ Good intentions aren’t a shield. Everybody means well, but that doesn’t prevent them from doing (or writing) intermittently awful things. We all carry baggage – invisible programming we pick up from our environments.

I ran simulations of racial bias in police shootings for many years. Everyone who walked into that lab genuinely wanted to be a good, egalitarian human being. But that didn’t stop them from making very, very bad decisions with a gun in their hand. Our brains are vast and complex, and we can’t consciously access a lot of what’s happening in there, especially when we’re angry or stressed or afraid or just not thinking. We need to set aside shame and recognize that doing questionable things doesn’t make us fundamentally bad people – as long as we work to correct the harm.

Cognitive science taught me that I need to be open to the possibility that people who call me on a bad decision might understand what I’m doing better than I do. The human mind is crammed with self-serving heuristics.

I really encourage everyone to read up on the findings of social and cognitive psychology. While all social science should be treated with healthy skepticism until it’s been thoroughly replicated, I think there’s a lot there worth knowing.

You’re an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers! How cool is that?

It’s very cool! I attended the workshop as a seventeen-year-old student in ’06. It changed my life. I met a lady – whose wonderful fiction you can read in a recent issue of Apex, look for “Insurrection in Silk” – and I learned how to write and submit short fiction. The Alpha alumni community has been a wonderful source of critiques and camaraderie.

We get by on donations and grants, and we’re all-volunteer, so if you want to pitch in, your money will help a young student meet tuition.

Congratulations on your 3­ book contract with Tor! Wow! Can you give us a sneak peek, or are we out of luck until The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes out in fall 2015?
Thank you! I’m excited and humbled, and I hope I don’t make a mess of it. You could always read “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds,” the short story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies which inspired the novel…but for better or worse, I must warn you that the short story spoils the first novel’s ending. You might consider that a mercy.

My agent pitched The Traitor Baru Cormorant as “Game of Thrones meets Guns, Germs, and Steel.” It’s the story of a young woman who decides the only way to save her home from a colonizing power is to become shadow ruler of the known world.


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