Carolyn Gilman had her first novel Halfway Human published in 1998 and has continued to write inventive and compelling speculative fiction. Her most recent novel, Dark Orbit, combines alien contact with murder. She has written numerous short stories and also novellas, which have been nominated for three Nebula Awards and a Hugo Award. Carolyn balances writing with her career as a historian working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. She shares with us her thoughts on gender, how being a historian affects her fiction, and where she gets her ideas.
In Halfway Human, Tedla, an asexual being from the planet Gammadis, arrives on the planet Capella and sparks a confrontation between their worlds. What interested you about exploring the complex intersection of gender and society through an asexual character?
The question that originally interested me was, how critical is gender to who we are? For me, the answer is “not very.” When I am plotting a story, I will often have a vivid sense of the main character’s personality and yet have a difficult time deciding what gender he or she is. Some of my stories would work perfectly well, albeit differently, if all the genders were reversed. When I noticed this, I thought it would be interesting to see if it was possible to portray a fully realized human being—capable of love, intelligence, and spiritual searching—without any gender at all. Could I convince readers of the personhood of an asexual human being?
The results of the experiment were, in general, negative. People were convinced of Tedla’s personhood all right, but usually assigned it a gender in their minds. In my unscientific survey, about 45% felt Tedla was male, 45% felt it was female, and about 10% were able to imagine it as neither. The gender of the readers did not seem to determine what gender they assigned to the character.
Interestingly, some of my feminist friends were unable to see Halfway Human as a book about gender at all. To them, gender is of such overwhelming importance to identity that they see society, philosophy, and even the physical universe through a lens of gender. Subtracting that lens seemed quite pointless to them.
Your recent fantasy works, Isles of the Forsaken and its sequel, Ison of the Isles, tackle big themes including revolution, war, and “civilizing” people. How does your work as a historian inform the way you approach these themes in your novels?
My work as a historian of Native American frontier and colonial history is a huge source of material for my fiction, but not in any straightforward way. I try to keep the two subjects partitioned in my mind, because at work I have to base everything I say on evidence. The real consequences of real events are too serious to be tainted by opinion or speculation. I save those for my fiction.
The Forsaken books are one exception. At the time I started them, there was quite a rash of SF/F novels about natural, spiritual indigenous peoples being overwhelmed by invasions of evil Western colonialists. I knew that it wasn’t nearly as simple and straightforward as that. So I set up a situation that was more morally ambiguous, and ends more realistically. What I found was that readers are attached to the mythology, and not very interested in having it mucked up with historical realism.
Novellas are some of your most commended works, receiving three Nebula Award nominations and one Hugo Award nomination. What aspects of writing novellas do you enjoy and what do you find most challenging?
Working full time, I have very little time for writing. Yet I love the sense of full immersion you get from a novel—it transports you out of ordinary life, and you have scope for complexity and character change. Novellas give you a chance to develop the setting and tell a plotted story, yet can be finished in little scraps of time. It is very important to give yourself some instant gratification. Of course, you have to go to all the trouble of worldbuilding and character development, so novellas are disproportionately labor intensive. Only if you love the labor should you do novellas.
What makes up a good writing session for you and what are your indispensable tools?
I think it’s a mistake to think of writing as just the time spent in front of a computer. For me, most of the work has to be done by that time; staring at a screen without having a clear plan is a recipe for frustration and blockage.
Ideas don’t come from Schenectady, they come from the subconscious. The care and feeding of the subconscious is crucial. My particular way of harvesting from the subconscious is to sit in a quiet room free associating around a theme and taking notes on my pop-up thoughts. If you do enough of that, the part that happens at the computer is just assembly. The times when the two steps merge are those moments of effortless flow, when it seems like all you are doing is transcribing direct from elsewhere.
What do you love to geek out about?
How much time do you have? I get geeky about too many things to count, always have. My most recent story, “Touring With the Alien,” was the result of a geekout about theories of consciousness. My novel Dark Orbit is a geekfest adventure about quantum physics and epistemology.
Just this morning I spent an hour taking notes on the kind of life you’d find on a planet orbiting a Wolf-Rayet star, and yesterday it was Titan (the moon of Saturn, not the Greek myth, though that sounds interesting, too). Then there’s the science of subjectivity, and complex systems science, and…and…The world is way too interesting for such short-lived beings as we.
For more on Carolyn Gilman and her works, visit the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and her Goodreads page. Be sure to check out her novel Dark Orbit and her latest short story over at Clarksworld Magazine.
//Images courtesy of Carolyn Gilman.