Kristine Kathryn Rusch :: The Lost Interview

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday June 9, 2011

Alost a year ago, I emailed a series of interview questions to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a writer of extraordinary speculative fiction and fantasy (among other genres). The occasion was the publication of an anthology of her short stories, "Recovering Apollo 8", by Golden Gryphon Press.

As with Rusch's earlier anthology from Golden Gryphon Press ("Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon," which remains a personal favorite), the book collects together a dazzling array of selections -- among them a story titled "G-Men," which revisits a time, more than a generation past, when gay men could be targeted for death by sadistic killers with little fear of serious investigation by the police.

The book harbors other strange and magnificent jewels, too, such as the haunting title story. There's also "The End of the World," an unforgettable tale of the friendship between a young alien -- the last of her kind on Earth, after her stranded people are murdered by xenophobic humans -- and a sympathetic human being. Told partly in flashback, the story also examines, with minute precision, the not-quite-fucntional relationship between a smart,competent investigator and her ex-husband, who has stumbled upon a mass grave from decades earlier. This is a tale of the dehumanizing effects of racism and the saving grace of compassion (which outcasts might have cause to know better than anyone), it's a hopeful story that asks its audience to remember its better angels and defer to them whenever possible.

There's no shortage of action-adventure and humor in this mix of yarns. The novella-length "Diving into the Wreck" follows a deep-space salvage crew as they lay claim to a fabulous prize from a distant century: The drifting carcass of a powerful starship. But a lost technology, so exotic as to be almost alien, threatens their mission, and their lives.

"The Strangeness of the Day" is a modern take on a classic fairy tale -- and a barrel of magical laughs to boot. Then there's the sweet and moving "June 16th at Anna's," a story about a future form of entertainment (would you believe it's conversation!) that'll bring goose pimples to the reader.

But the book has darker aspects, too, such as "Craters," a cautionary tale about a not-so-distant future in which unwitting children are turned into suicide bombers (more appropriately, into human time bombs) by shadowy forces intent on death and destruction.

Such is the human condition. But taken together, the stories seem to ask a larger question: What does it mean to dream of a species of humanity in which viciousness, hatred, and violence are no longer present? Should we ever arrive at such a stage of evolution, would we still be humans at all -- or would we have become the very aliens we imagine with delight and trepidation alike?

My questions vanished into the aether, either tumbling into a time warp (or maybe a black hole) or else falling prey to some sort of email anomaly. However it happened, Rusch didn't see my message until months later. In turn, her responses languished in my inbox for more months.

But now, gleaming in chrome and humming with strange energies, behold: the EDGE interview with Kristine Kathryn Rusch!

EDGE: You don't seem to suffer bigots or homophobes gladly. One story in "Recovering Apollo 8," "G-Men," pits a federal agent with a sense that all Americans should be entitled to the protections of the law against colleagues who seem to feel that gay executions -- referred to as "lifestyle kills" -- are, if not justified, then certainly not a priority for law enforcement. When writing stories set in the past, do you make it a point to recollect what social attitudes used to be like? If so, is it in order to contrast those outdated views with contemporary attitudes and see how we've progressed... or maybe, haven't progressed?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I have to, Kilian, both for me and for my readers. Most of my readers didn't live through the time period, but those who did will remember the clear bigotry and the unapologetic homophobia. It was awful. The rhymes I learned as a child I can't even repeat now. They ingrained the terrible attitudes.

EDGE: Along the same lines, you explore racial prejudice (of an all too literal sort) in the story "The End of the World," where you contrast the theme of social prejudice against personal insecurity. An armchair psychology interpretation of prejudice would say that bigotry and insecurity are linked: was this your argument in the story?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: No. I think there's much more to social prejudice than insecurity. But I do think insecurity is a component of it all.

EDGE: Writers of speculative fiction often project today's technology into the future, but how easy is it to try to project today's attitudes ahead a century or two? Does trying to predict the surprises in tomorrow's slate of prejudices and social preconceptions lead to scenarios that are too strange or unbelievable to make marketable stories out of them?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: It's hard to predict because our attitudes do change. In my lifetime we went from the concept that blacks weren't smart enough to hold public office to science fiction writers using black men (not women) as President of the United States to show a far future to having a black (male) President.

Things never quite go on the timetable we expect. A friend of mine said he expected a female president long before he expected a black one. But right now, it's still okay to say things about women that you could never say about blacks in general. And the things said about Muslims remind me of the bigotry of my childhood as well as the upsetting things said about gays.

I want to do a mystery series at some point about crimes that are no longer crimes. Things like buying birth control. Or a woman trying to get a divorce.

Extrapolating into the future makes it even harder. I get a lot of flack from reviewers about my Retrieval Artist series because humans accept alien laws in alien cultures as a part of a treaty with those aliens. The reviewers tell me that humans would never do that. And I think... if I commit a crime overseas, I'm subject to all kinds of laws that would shock Americans. Why is the far future any different?

EDGE: In the story "Craters," you envision both technological innovation (a new kind of weapon) and religious fundamentalism (fanatical terrorists) as they might appear in a not-so-distant future. But the story seems to be more about the emphasis that religions and governments alike place on ideologies over the welfare of human beings. Is that tendency (along with other human shortcomings like prejudice and bigotry) something that we might reasonably expect to eradicate some day ("Star Trek" style), or are we stuck with those frailties (as writers of sci-fi dysopian stories seem to indicate)?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Sadly, in my study of history, I see no evidence that we will overcome the very human tendency to put ideology over compassion. Once we form a government (and we do so for reasons of safety and security), we give up individual rights and compassion on some level. From ancient times to now, that pattern has emerged.

I have trouble with "post-human" stories for that reason. I think people are people are people and have been since the beginning of human history. We're strong and good and heroic. We're smart and compassionate and innovative. We also pick on the weak and designate someone to hate.

And we're pack animals, so in that sense we're not a lot different from other pack animals. I know that's bleak. But I find hope in the humans of every generation who do good despite the odds rather than the ones who follow the crowd.

EDGE: If humanity scrapped its weaknesses and follies -- would we still be human beings? Is this one of the reasons we are fascinated by stories of aliens: A mingled hope and fear about how we ourselves might evolve? Is "humanity" worth hanging on to if it means never outgrowing the drawbacks of our species, like tribalism and unreasoning hatred?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Ah, I anticipated your question! I'll answer the second part -- is humanity worth haning onto given the drawbacks of our species?

Yes. Without them, we wouldn't have the great parts -- the heroes, the healers, the thinkers. We're a grand species, but we're flawed. We strive for perfection but will never achieve it. And that makes us great, IMHO.

EDGE: Your short stories -- as you observe yourself in the book's afterword -- often serve as springboards for novels, even whole series of novels. Do you ever write a story as a "pilot" for a novel series, thinking that if the story is well received you'll be able to return to that world and those characters to mine the material that's implicit in the setting?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: No. Usually I write the story, realize I have too much character/worldbuilding/plot, and wave my hands to finish it. Then I write the novel. But I never try the story as a "pilot." I don't think marketing until I'm done.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.