In a special author interview for BCS Science-Fantasy Month, BCS Assistant Editor Kate Marshall talks with Chris Willrich about “The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife,” Quixotes and Sanchos, sword & sorcery and sword & planet, and how artificial augmentation in humans might impact how we would interact with alien species.
BCS: Your “Gaunt and Bone” stories are a fresh take on a classic sword and sorcery duo, but you’ve also written science fiction. How do you approach genre in your work?
Thanks! I love both science fiction and fantasy for the big canvases they offer. I guess I differ slightly in how I handle them. I got into fantasy by way of the written word, but I originally got hooked on science fiction through movies and television. With fantasy, I’m very conscious of language, more so than when I’m writing science fiction. And with science fiction, I feel a stronger need to nail down the plot before writing, maybe because science fictional worlds seem to demand a better up-front understanding of the setting.
BCS: Where would you place “The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife” in the genre? Do you consider it science-fantasy?
I think it’s is in the same general neighborhood as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover—something with fantasy flavor but with a science-fictional alien planet setting. Whether or not it has to be science-fantasy rather than science fiction may depend on how much the Motes and the Firelife stretch your willing suspension of disbelief. I’m happy with either label, but the term I’d personally tend to apply to “Mote-Dancer” is “sword and planet,” because it follows that old tradition of a plucky Earthling thrown into an exotic extraterrestrial setting with just three shots left in her laser pistol.
BCS: In “The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife,” the apparent magic seems to be a result of extremely advanced technology. Aside from the oft-quoted Arthur C. Clarke line, what’s the difference between technology too advanced to understand and magic?
If we’re in a science fiction story, even the hyper-advanced technology that looks like magic has to obey natural laws. Maybe the alien builders had a better, more complete edition of the cosmic rule-book than we do, but they still couldn’t cheat. If we’re in a fantasy story, all bets are off. I think in “Mote-Dancer” I-Chen actually trips over that distinction when she realizes the Firelife isn’t quite as she expected.
BCS: Spinies fight in pairs—Quixotes and Sanchos. What’s the significance of these particular labels? If the Spinies knew the literary significance, do you think they’d object?
I’ve assumed the labels were an ad hoc assignment by an earlier human explorer who observed this custom and latched on to the image of Don Quixote traveling around with Sancho Panza. I think it was the sort of thing that was just a placeholder at first, but ended up catching on. I imagine while some Spine Flutists would be offended by these human terms, many would find the allusion interesting. They might even read up on Cervantes, and be intrigued by Don Quixote’s picture of a warrior ideal at odds with the conditions of life. Kind of like the Star Trek joke of how you can’t fully appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon! (I should confess that to my discredit the closest I’ve come to getting acquainted with Don Quixote is watching Man of La Mancha.)
BCS: Spinies are truly inhuman, but I-Chen herself is significantly altered, at least by our standards. How do you think introducing an artificial variation in humanity would impact the way we would interact with alien species?
That’s an interesting question. I think potentially it could give us more perspectives to bring to bear in dealing with aliens, and that could be very helpful. It might be especially useful if we had aquatic humans to meet aquatic aliens, flying humans to meet flying aliens, and so on. And if human variety were even greater than it is now, maybe we would become better diplomats. But that might be an overly optimistic assessment of human nature!
The other side of the coin is the nature of the aliens. If they were pretty homogenous, and we met them as a collection of many different genetically-altered subgroups, they might find us hard to fathom. I think Walter Jon Williams explored a scenario like that in his story “Dinosaurs.”
On the other hand, science fiction has many alien cultures with huge differentiation. A famous example are Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Moties. Aliens like those might just shrug at someone like I-Chen. And of course the aliens, too, might have modified themselves considerably. It’s fun to speculate, but the number of “ifs” just multiply the longer you think about it.
BCS: The Spinies’ spiritual beliefs have quite tangible proof to back them up. What does the Firelife mean to the Spinies? Do they view the appearance of their dead as a kind of magic?
As I see it, for the Spine Flutists the Firelife is in one sense like an afterlife, but in another way it’s like going away to Hollywood and becoming a movie star. It has aspects of both spirituality and a hard-nosed hunt for celebrity. Do they view it as magic? I think it’s an in-between sort of thing. The Motes are a tangible technological legacy from a super-advanced culture. In that sense there’s nothing magical about them. But the Motes can’t be taken apart, reprogrammed, or duplicated. So technical expertise is of no real use in employing them. The Motes connect to the Spinies’ minds on both a conscious and unconscious level, and so a degree of magical thinking is actually helpful for the Spinies in manipulating the Motes and the Firelife.
This isn’t a completely foreign idea. We humans don’t have the Firelife, but it’s commonplace for humans to have magical ideas about our own, self-created technology. We swear at our computers, we attribute personalities to our cars, we imagine dwellings to have a kind of spirit. It goes all the way back to thinking of fire as a living thing.
BCS: What other work do you find inspiring, either fictional or otherwise?
It’s hard to pare it down to a reasonable list. Here’s a grab bag of ten things I’ve found inspiring...
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, by Lord Dunsany
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
Swords and Deviltry, by Fritz Leiber
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
BCS: What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
Just this moment I’m working on something I don’t think I can talk about yet! After that, I think it will be a short story or two, at least one of them a Gaunt and Bone story. Before the year gets very old, I want to get going on a new novel. I’m very tempted to write about Gaunt and Bone traveling their world’s version of the Silk Road.