Athena Andreadis has long been one of my science-fictional inspirations. Her life work in the field includes critical essays on a variety of subjects on her blog at Starship Reckless, her work as a writer of mythic space opera, and a collaborator on the Feral Astrogator anthology series, The Other Half of the Sky and To Shape the Dark, both available from publisher Candlemark & Gleam. She is also the author of To Seek Out New Life: the Biology of Star Trek.
She has also mentored young and not-so-young writers; on a personal note, she read a very early version of a story in my Shipwright cycle, with the discerning eye that marries the critical to the creative. Her essays on the science/fiction boundary at the heart of space opera have been a positive inspiration to world-building, and her book recommendations always rewarding.
What has inspired most, however, is her career as an independent, resilient, cross-cultural creator.
Initial concept for the anthology To Shape the Dark: where did it start, how did it grow? You’re the name, or one of the names, on the cover. What roles were played by the “unseen team?”
After the immense success of The Other Half of the Sky, which was to some extent an exploratory feeler—but also a banner and blueprint—I wanted to do a few more focused anthologies that explore aspects to which SF pays lip service, if it attends to them at all.
As a research scientist, an unapologetic feminist and a cross-culture cosmopolitan who detests artificial splits (work versus family, intuition versus logic), I wanted to restore visionary science in SF without its traditional accoutrements of heedlessness to larger contexts and of socially inept scientists who need to be buffered by self-denying helpmates.
As with The Other Half of the Sky, I wanted (and got) swashbuckling with layers, ambiguities, dilemmas; nuanced characters, echoing histories, original worlds and societies. And interwoven with that, the real agonies, ecstasies and dilemmas of working scientists.
Most of the team is visible on the cover and flyleaf: besides the wordsmiths, Eleni Tsami created and designed the cover; Kate Sullivan designed the divider ornament, created the books, print and digital, and has been my indispensable second-in-command; and Kate, AnnaLinden Weller, Laura Duncan and I did the copy editing.
Tell me about what you saw as you sorted through submissions for the anthology. How did you deal with the volume of material you got? Did your concept of the anthology evolve at all at this stage? E.g. did you get anything unexpected, individual or groups of stories, that shifted things?
As with The Other Half of the Sky, I gathered the contributors for To Shape the Dark by invitation. Curating by invitation is radically different from doing so by open submissions. Whereas the danger of open submissions is a sludge flood, the danger of invited submissions is attrition. It’s standard to lose 30-40% of the initial contributors along the way. You have to plan for that, so that you don’t end up with an anemic final product.
My own view of what constitutes science is broad: I include archeologists and linguists in the ranks. I did request that we don’t get inundated by psychologists or computer programmers, both done to death in SF. So no real suprises. And I found myself often smiling in recognition when one of the writers got a particular aspect of exercising the discipline right.
Talk about the collaborative process involved in creating this anthology. How did dialogue formal and informal shape the creation?
I particularly relish the background discussions with the authors when we’re sculpting the stories, a process that gives me glimpses into the larger universe behind each work. Often, what I already knew of a particular universe is what made me invite its creator to contribute to one of my anthologies. My vision for each story is that it becomes not what I want it to be – but what it wants to be, a dazzling creature out of the starting chrysalis.
I asked my partners in this venture to show me women scientists, mathematicians and engineers who passionately pursue their explorations, are not subject to the snooze-inducing conflict of work versus family and are aware of the limitations and consequences of their vocation; and for cultures where science is a holistic endeavor as necessary as art—or air.
When you had the group of stories, how did you think of the anthology as a succession of groups/movements? Talk a little bit about the process of grouping the stories to make a larger whole. What was the most challenging choice (in terms of story placement/ordering)? What determined your choice of first story, closing story?
Putting stories together has to be done with care and flair. I organized To Shape the Dark as a seaswell—and also as Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Additionally, I placed the stories so that they belong to overlapping conceptual groups, like roof tiles.
An anthology is like a symphony—or like satisfying lovemaking. It has to start with a rousing motif: a story that’s simultaneously absorbing and accessible, so that the reader is irrevocably pulled into the work without noticing they crossed the event horizon. And it has to end with a resolution, an alighting from the ecstatic flight: a story that powerfully embodies the core concept of the entire oeuvre while whetting appetite for future ventures.
For both anthologies, I was preternaturally lucky in the closing sentences. In The Other Half of the Sky, the last sentence of the last story is “She’s handed us a cathedral.” In To Shape the Dark, it is “The rest is history.”
How does the final version of the anthology compare to the original concept?
I’ve been reading speculative fiction ever since I learned how to read. To some extent, it was reading fantasy and SF that made me want to become a scientist, an astrogator. And just as science beguiled me while frustrating me, so did SF. My choices were to stop reading SF—or create (directly or indirectly) SFnal universes that I’d want to inhabit. To Shape the Dark, even more than The Other Half of the Sky, is bone of my bone and blood of my blood. And like all offspring, it looks at the same time entirely familiar…and “something rich and strange”, its own being, on the way to who knows what journeys and destinations.
You’re a writer as well as an anthologist. How does your experience shaping your own work feed your work as an anthologist, and vice versa? Tell me about an aspect of the anthologist’s art that helped you to level up your game as a writer.
Being a writer and an editor gives you double vision. You know the vulnerability and trust involved in people summoning the courage to show you their work. You also know how hard, yet how essential, it is to listen to editorial suggestions without becoming upset or depressed. Both parties are walking a tightrope while precariously balancing a bundle of hopes and dreams between them. I’m an atheist; but I deem editing a holy task, with all the implications of that term. As, incidentally, I deem science.
I think my anthology partners must have figured this out, because I received intangible but priceless gifts that made tears rise to my eyes. One confided (after I had accepted the story) that the protagonist had incorporated aspects of my own research trajectory. Another that the features of the protagonist were partly based on one of my online photos.
My own writing habits, for good and ill, are set. I know what I want to write, and how I want to write it. My works will always be interstitial—between cultures, between tropes, between genres. I’m a feral orphan, a non-joiner. And so is my writing. But if I’m working with an editor whose discernment I trust (and there are such editors), I pay heed to them.
This anthology is part of an ongoing dialogue. With what work, ideas, tropes, traditions does it engage?
Science-based wonder is the core of SF. Yet its writers have mostly cast science as either triumphalism or hubris and exalted the lone (and almost invariably male) genius, neglecting such crucial attributes as cooperative labor and pride in craft. Ask an SF reader to name a woman scientist in the genre: the likeliest reply will be Asimov’s Susan Calvin. For this project, I was immensely gratified that each story protagonist has a different vocation and most of the protagonists are old/er but respected and heeded – all this without any prompting from me!
To Shape the Dark places writing quality and originality of imagination above agendas; tries to restore to SF the sense of epiphany, the pleasures of rigor and collaboration, the braiding of discipline, craft skill and imaginative play inherent in real science; and remains stubbornly accessible while avoiding clichéd tropes from both the Leaden and Meta Ages of SF.
(Too) many argue that science and scientists are hard to portray excitingly in SF but both aficionados and detractors of “hard” SF confuse accuracy with verisimilitude. What matters is the larger context—the lucid dreaming and where it takes the reader’s mind. So I didn’t specify scientific accuracy for the stories; I specified respect for the scientific method and for the questing, aware mind. Scientists are as fallible as any human, but they have the great privilege and responsibility of shaping the dark. That’s what SF shows too rarely, in my view.
Scientists are humanity’s astrogators: they never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn while they chart destinations and attend to the hydroponics. To Shape the Dark is part of that vigil.