Fear the binary!
Emma Newman is a successful novelist and podcaster whose work has been nominated for awards including the Hugo. Her podcast, ‘Tea and Jeopardy’, came about because Emma noticed that there weren’t many female podcasts and no silly science fiction at all. SF podcasts tended to be of the terribly serious talking head variety and Emma felt she had nothing to add to that. Instead, she has created an audio theatre in which guests engage with Emma and the satanic butler Latimer, played by Emma’s husband, in an unusual place such as a spaceship or the back of a giant bird. The twist is that the guest must survive an individually tailored ‘mild peril’, so Joe Abercrombie aka Lord Grimdark had to survive an encounter with a beautiful unicorn. Ugh!
In keeping with both audio media and also Emma’s love of roleplaying games, she works as a professional narrator of audio books. Her route to this job came about in a characteristically unusual way. While trying to get her first novel published and facing the usual blank responses endured by contemporary novelists, Emma struggled with the lack of data about the reasons for rejection. Was it because the book was wrong for the time? Was it because agents and publishers had something similar in the works? Worst of all was it because the book wasn’t any good? Emma describes this process as like being in the grip of a strange madness and to do something about it she released readings from the book on her website. The response to these recordings, particularly the narration, was very positive. This feedback encouraged Emma to go for an open audition with an audio book company and she got the job. Since then she has narrated numerous books, including her own ‘Split Worlds’ urban fantasy series and her new science fiction novel ‘Planetfall’.
She has found that narrating her own work has unique advantages. Books by other authors need to be read before the recording to check for practical requirements like accents and also to gauge the emotional stages of a character’s journey. However, while Emma’s books are inevitably more familiar to her, she has to manage the secret voice of doubt that questions the quality of the writing. To counter this tendency and to ensure that a book sounds right and flows properly, Emma reads each chapter as it is finished to her husband. Even then, Emma doesn’t really get a sense of the story until a year after the book is finished. She describes this process as being like a mechanic who knows how the car works but doesn’t quite understand the ride, at least not at first.
She has this confusion in common with her main character in ‘Planetfall’, which will be available at its launch at Forbidden Planet London this evening but after that not until 3 November. Described as sociological, psychological hard SF, the novel is about Ren, a 3D printing engineer on a distant planet. Ren’s best friend Suh has become the messianic Pathfinder, who led colonists to this new world after a vision established accurate galactic coordinates. The planet is said to be the home of God and the colonists’ settlement has been built under a mysterious alien structure. Then from out of the wilderness a stranger appears, claiming to be the Pathfinder’s son…
In a reflection of the three realms in the Split Worlds universe, so there are three main technologies in ‘Planetfall’: 3D printing, synthetic biology and manipulation of the secondary genome. The colony is a combination of these scientific advances and is unashamedly utopian and organic, which Emma says is an angry reaction to our divorce from the environment. It also enables her to take technology available now and play with it.
From the podcast to the world of the Mundanes in the ‘Split Worlds’ books, play is a precious commodity in Emma’s work, especially when set against stifling social norms. The freedom to have fun becomes an almost political imperative, both as a theme in her novels and also as part of their structure. It is also a reaction to the binary approach of much contemporary culture, particularly media. For example, Emma did not know she was writing urban fantasy in the ‘Split Worlds’ series; she just told the story she wanted to tell and the label came later.
A life-long SF fan, she admits to not writing it directly at first out of awe of the genre’s ideas. She is a character-driven writer, and wondered if she would be allowed to play with the Big Ideas Boys. Despite this concern, she found the transition between genres easy with the science required for ‘Planetfall’ no more challenging to create than the complex, interlocking magic systems of the Split Worlds. Unlike the magic, however, Emma is confident that the ideas and inventions in ‘Planetfall’ are actually likely to come true.
There is an interesting tension in Emma’s work between the freedom she describes and a need for control. For example, in ‘Planetfall’ people have chips in their brains that enable instantaneous communication. However, to prevent emotionally charged reactive info dumps there is a voluntary control called a v-keyboard, which Ren uses to ensure caution and to prevent other people lip-reading her spoken comms. This sensitivity may reflect Emma’s own anxiety condition, or it may be the result of her distrust of society’s binary approach to complex situations, such as partitioning people into being either ill or not ill. In the novel, Ren is both ill and also brilliant. Each aspect is a part of her; neither alone is a singular definition.
Ren is certainly troubled and Emma explains that it is flaws that make someone beautiful and realistic. Is Ren a good or a bad person? Emma said there is no such thing; people are good until they are screwed over. Emma mostly feels compassion for her protagonist and describes working on compassion generally in the face of a mass media that wants us to hate. Perhaps Ren’s harsh denials are a reflection of this contemporary pressure.
Emma describes how writing this novel was a different experience to writing her previous books. She would usually get to the thirty-thousand word point and slump, then reach ninety-thousand words and not want the book to end because it would then face judgement. ‘Planetfall’ was different; she likened the writing of it to cracking something open.
Secrets are certainly a big part of the book and Emma describes Ren living with layers of denial, although she is not an unreliable narrator because what she says is true to her in the moment. Rather, she holds herself together by repression, while figuring out the main mystery with the cool precision of an engineer. Emma dramatizes this complexity further by having Ren be both a scientist and also believer in God. Why should someone not be both? Ren’s sexuality is similarly ambiguous in a way that is treated quite rightly in the story as entirely normal. Here again, we sense the author’s frustration with simple divisions.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the daft binary approach is in the same way as Emma creates amazing male characters, which is to make them people first.