Episode 38: Transcript
Episode: 38 – The New Anti-Capitalist Science Fiction
Transcription by Keffy
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the social meaning of science fiction. I'm Annalee Newitz. I'm a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] I'm Charlie Jane Anders. I'm a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:14] So what we're going to be talking about today is the rebirth of science fiction and fantasy that have an anti-capitalist theme. And this is something that, especially in the United States, feels very relevant with the rise of democratic socialism. We've had politicians like AOC and Bernie Sanders kind of popularizing this idea, and it's working its way into our fiction as well. And sometimes when we think about the history of anti-capitalism and science fiction, we think of stories that deal with the tropes of revolution or reform, kind of like a science fictional version of some of our Congress critters asking for Google to be regulated. But what we want to talk about today is the ways that we think outside of capitalism or against capitalism that kind of don't fit into those tropes. So let's get started.
[00:01:09] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:36] I want to start with a snippet of a lecture that was given by Fredric Jameson back in 2014 at the Graduate Center at CUNY. And he was there talking about utopia. Fredric Jameson, for those of you who don't know, is a very prominent Marxist scholar who's very interested in how art reflects capitalism, but also anti-capitalist tendencies. He's probably best known for a book that came out in the early ‘90s called postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism. And he's one of my favorite thinkers because he's very interested in science fiction. And, in fact, he was one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s professors and was very influential on Stan's work. And so let's just listen. He kinda has a dry professor voice. But what I love about this quote is that he sort of talking about how revolution is dead, reformism didn't work, and we need to think about new ways of imagining utopia. And when he does that, he calls on this incredibly science fictional idea. So here he is talking about it.
Fredric Jameson: [00:02:46] At the very center of our new society, there will appear a new kind of institution destined to supplant traditional government agencies and executives of all kinds. We may provisionally call this new institution the Psychoanalytic Placement Bureau and it will, in conjunction with unimaginably complex computer systems, handle and organize all forms of employment. There'll be universal employment of course, as well as all manner of personal and collective therapies mediating between the individual and the collective and you may insert innumerable familial structures and groups of your choosing in between them.
[00:03:30] The new institution will combine the functions of a union and a hospital, an employment office and a court, a market research agency, a polling bureau, and a social welfare center. Presumably what's left of the police as an institution will eventually be attached to and transformed by this central agency, which will itself eventually replace government and political structures as such, the state thereby withering away into some enormous group therapy.
Annalee: [00:04:02] He invents this idea of these Psychoanalytic Placement Bureau and in the background you can hear people laughing as he's giving this academic talk. And he's been quite serious throughout most of the talk and everyone's been very calm and respectful, but people can't help but laugh when you talk about utopia. And I love that he's imagining the withering away of the state, not by calling on these tropes of revolution, which oftentimes really devolve into stories about great men slaughtering the bad guys and setting up their own version of the state. Instead he says, you know what, maybe when the state withers away, it's replaced by a giant group therapy session. Which, you know, it made me think about how maybe the opposite of authoritarianism isn't anarchy, but actually group therapy.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:56] Yeah, that would be nice.
Annalee: [00:04:57] Wouldn't it be great. I think there's—a lot of us need group therapy to deal with, you know, historical injuries and social problems and inequality as much as we need reparations. Obviously, we need those first.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:11] And actually, you know, we talked in the anti-capitalism episode a while ago or like the episode about what comes after capitalism, we talked about what we value and how we assign values to things. And I think we talked about that in our economics episode too. And like currently we have this problem where we don't assign enough value to clean water and clean air versus the value of stock prices. You know, mental health, wellness, like wellbeing, you know, emotional happiness and good boundaries. Those are things that we don't really think to kind of put a price tag on or consider values that are we need to generate more of.
Annalee: [00:05:46] Right. And I think he's not just talking about things like mental health, for example. I think he's really talking about how do you get over conflict? Like how do you end this endless cycle of oppression and conflict, and separation and separatism. Like, what will really get us beyond those problems which lead to so many horrors like war and slavery and patriarchy. And he’s saying, well why not group therapy? And it's made me think about how there's a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there, which is anti-capitalist not because it imagines destroying corporations, but because it imagines romance and community being resilient in the face of oppression. And it made me really want to kind of revalue romance and think about how romance itself can be a political statement. And I feel like, I mean, we could talk forever about how romance is marginalized and kind of shit on in the sci-fi community when it shouldn't be. It should be central to a lot of stories.
[00:06:46] I'm wondering if we could talk, me and you, Charlie Jane, a little bit about anti-capitalist romance in science fiction. Are there any stories that come to mind for you when I say anti-capitalist romance? This is like a quiz show.
Charlie Jane: [00:07:02] One book I read recently that I really loved that was both anti-capitalist and a romance is Want by Cindy Pon. It's a young adult novel about this group of young people who are kind of conspiring against an evil corporation that makes these environment suits that the rich use to go outside in the polluted air and basically the rich are healthy and young and beautiful because they don't have to breathe all this air pollution in a future Taiwan. And these young people kind of conspire to kidnap the daughter of one of these rich families and basically steal some information from her and then brainwash her and send her back. And the guy who is kind of charged with kidnapping her kind of falls in love with her and then he has to go under cover and impersonate one of the wealthy elites and in this future Taiwan. They end up getting into a relationship and he thinks that she doesn't remember anything about him kidnapping her. And you know, there's a twist, which I won't reveal, but it's actually, it's a book that's like both got a really kind of nuanced, interesting critique of capitalism and it really beautiful romance. And it's got a group of friends who kind of are there for each other. And I feel like that is the thing that I'm seeing more and more in a lot of the books that I'm enjoying the most is like the kind of like chosen family slash community coming together thing that is in everything from Becky Chambers to N.K. Jemisin, and beyond.
Annalee: [00:08:18] Yeah, it’s really interesting because when you start to think about it, you realize that romance crops up again and again in these stories. I'm glad you mentioned N.K. Jemisin because I think one of the things about Broken Earth that we don't praise enough, that whole trilogy, is that there are these incredibly beautiful, well-realized romances in them.
[00:08:40] Another novel, which is also YA, that I was thinking about is The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, which I believe I have praised on this show before. But, it's set in a future offshore city. It's off the coast of Brazil and it's a hyper-capitalist society, but it's also based on an earlier American tradition of a culture based around sacrifice and like having to have these rituals of human sacrifice. In this case, people who win their equivalent of like a music contest become princes, but then they become the summer prince or princess and then they have to be sacrificed.
[00:09:20] So, American Idol with sacrifice at the end and so there's a group of young people who are rebelling against the system because obviously human sacrifice is not really a great model. And, again, there's this beautiful romance that blooms and it's also, because they're young, there's different romances and so we're never really sure. Like, you know, is it this guy or that girl and who's going to end up with whom? But again, it always, you see it coming up again and again.
[00:09:48] Also, in Rivers Solomon’s novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, which is such a harrowing book and is really about plantation slavery, reinvented on a generation ship. Even there, there's an incredibly beautiful, touching romance, which just like broke my heart. It was so incredible when I realized that it was happening because at first I was just like, I'm just shipping these characters. And then it was like, no, they’re actually together!
Charlie Jane: [00:10:14] Yay! Squee!
Annalee: [00:10:14] And I was so excited. And it was like, even though that novel, again, it's so spiky and so dark, but there is a tiny bit of hope through the characters rebelling against the system. But also that hope, I think, comes through that romance.
[00:10:30] The other thing about anti-capitalist stories that I think gets neglected a lot in our fascination with revolution is that really when we try to imagine ways of resisting capitalism, it's kind of about re-imagining collectivity. Because capitalism is a system that lies to us about our community and who's in our community and who we're connected to. And so one of the great places this comes out is in the most recent season of The Good Place. There's going to be some spoilers, so hold onto your hats, kids. But what we discover in that season is that no one has gotten into heaven for about 500 years, which is basically the sort of moment of the rise of like the modern state.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:16] Right.
Annalee: [00:11:16] And it's because we don't really understand our relationships to each other. And we're being tricked into doing evil things because we're say, buying what seems to us a perfectly innocent cup. But actually it was made by kids who were enslaved in Indonesia. Or we drive our car to go to work to help orphans, but of course, by driving, we're adding to carbon loading in the atmosphere and wrecking the future. And so this is a perfect example of how capitalism works. We think we're doing good. We think we're participating in a community, but there are all these other people that our lives are touching in a way that's really exploitive and we can't control it, and we can't extricate ourselves from it unless we try to reimagine what a collective is.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:01] Right.
Annalee: [00:12:01] And so then the question is, what model do we use for collectivity? Is it the church? Is it the army? Is it bureaucracy? Is it a Slack channel? Like what are some examples of that?
Charlie Jane: [00:12:12] Is it the family? Is it, you know, yeah, is it…
Annalee: [00:12:15] Oh, well, fuck the family.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:17] Okay.
Annalee: [00:12:17] I’m sorry. No, no, no. Families are great. I'm sorry, that was just a personal response.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:21] Okay.
Annalee: [00:12:21] So what are some of the ways that science fiction kind of tackles this?
Charlie Jane: [00:12:27] Like I said, a lot of my favorite science fiction of the last several years has really kind of been about people kind of coming together. We've talked before about Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, which has this kind of collectivist model. I know that Margaret Killjoy has kind of written about anarchism in her book, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, and you know, there have been some books that have tried to imagine other ways of coming together and other ways of collectivism.
[00:12:51] I also think that it's interesting that, you know, we are seeing a more kind of nuanced, sophisticated critique of capitalism. Whereas in the past there was this kind of lazy sketched in kind of critique of capitalism where it's like, the evil corporation, it's like Evil Corp with like three Es.
Annalee: [00:13:06] Weyland Yutani.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:08] Yeah, there's just like some faceless corporation or possibly has a face, and the face is like a giant floating head of evil.
[00:13:16] And it's just like they're the evil corporation where everything they do is evil all the time and they're easy to hate because they're sort of monolithic and it's this very simplistic kind of good versus evil storyline. I think that we are now starting to see more nuanced critiques of capitalism. Like the one you mentioned in The Good Place is a really good example. Also, I wanted to mention The Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan, Stanley Chen, which just came out from Tor, which is about a village where basically they're sorting e-waste. And one of the main characters is somebody who's kind of involved with this system but also is trying to like rebel against the system. And you know, it's the future, so the waste they're sorting through includes like old sex dolls and like brain implants and they get weird diseases from handling these things that had been inside people's bodies and inside people's brains. And it's really bizarre and kind of full of body horror and kind of gross, but it's also kind of a much deeper and weirder kind of vision of the downside of capitalism and kind of exploitation than just like the kind of standard, it's a city and there's an evil corporation and we kind of see the office of the Evil Corporation and they're doing bad stuff, kind of.
Annalee: [00:14:24] Yeah. It's sort of getting into these unintended effects that are basically caused by well-meaning people using these devices and not just thinking about where they're going to go and whose lives will be destroyed by having that kind of waste.
[00:14:39] I think like a great way to think about this shift is if you think of the movie Avatar, which we could criticize for lots of things, but it has that very simplistic vision of a corporation. It's like, it's a bad corporation, they do bad things, they hurt pretty blue people. They chop down trees. Like, and that’s—and literally we meet the guy who's from the corporation and he's like a slimy business guy and there's no sophistication at all.
[00:15:07] And then there's a show like The Expanse where we get this really rich tapestry of factionalism of groups that are like partly connected to a terrible system, but partly trying to reform the system. People who are trying to burn it all down, which, we might want to burn it all down because it's terrible, but also burning things down hurts people. And we get to understand all of the weird effects of these interplanetary political movements and it is really quite sophisticated. It also has, you know, space viruses and stuff like that, which just, you know, makes it all the more exciting. But the politics are really nuanced.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:47] And there is Jules-Pierre Mao, who is like your sort of archetypical evil rich guy, except that by the end we kind of realize that he's not entirely evil, that his desire to kind of explore what the Proto molecule can do may have led to some good effects and that he may have actually had some good reason for doing the terrible things that he did.
Annalee: [00:16:05] I mean, yeah, and he's also just not your standard bad guy too. Like he kind of doesn't come from the stock character evil white dude with a giant building or whatever. He's doing something a little bit different.
[00:16:21] Also, I think we get weird new models of collectivism in things like, okay, I'm just going to throw this out and see what you think. I was thinking about the sorting hat in Harry Potter, and how it's a way of imagining collectivity and connections between people that have nothing to do with class. I mean, of course you could argue that everyone who's going to Hogwarts is probably middle class or upper middle class. Although we do see examples of people who are poor, who are I guess scholarship students or whatever, and so we could get into that later. But—or never.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:50] Yeah, I mean how does Harry Potter pay his tuition at Hogwarts? I mean, who's paying that? Did his parents leave money for him?
Annalee: [00:16:56] I assume—well, no, they did, right? He goes to the…
Charlie Jane: [00:17:00] He goes to Gringotts, that’s right.
Annalee: [00:17:03] He goes to Gringotts and he's got like a pile of cash.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:04] There’s a banking system, I forgot. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s Gringotts.
Annalee: [00:17:06] He’s rich. He gets to have like the fanciest wand, he gets to have like the coolest, fluffiest owl, and like, first class on the train.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:14] I forgot about that. So, really what you’re saying is that Harry Potter is like a fantasy about upward mobility because he's like in this lower-middle class family, but it turns out that he's actually rich.
Annalee: [00:17:21] Well, yeah, I mean I think that’s his big.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:24] His real super power is money.
Annalee: [00:17:26] Part of it is, yeah. And it's also an inherited form of power, right? He comes from this legacy of powerful magicians. So he’s kind of got it in his blood. He's not a mud blood, but, and yet, you know, this is a story that does deal with that question. You know, the fact that we know what a mud blood is and that that's like problematized.
[00:17:45] We also see like odd moments of anti-capitalism. I was thinking a lot about the novel Sourdough by Robin Sloan, where there's a battle between basically two different models of capitalism. There's, kind of a battle in this book, which is set in San Francisco, between people who really love kind of organic food and they're kind of adherents of an Alice Waters-type figure. And then people who are obsessed with Soylent and it's kind of set up… I mean it's set up in a very gentle, funny way because Robin Sloan’s writing is always very sweet in a certain sense, but he's staging a story about the difference between a kind of industrial capitalist model where all pleasure is reduced to this like slurry of gross food—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:33] God, ugh.
Annalee: [00:18:33] And then a model of more kind of DIY capitalism, a kind of grow your own food model where there's small communities of people who come together and feed each other and the food is healthy and we know where it comes from and we know who's cooked it so you don't have that risk that you get in The Good Place where when you buy your cheese you're actually exploiting some poor person or exploiting some poor cow or goat versus, you know, who knows what goes into Soylent. I mean it's probably the blood of babies, I don't know.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:04] Yeah. Another San Francisco novel I actually wanted to mention is Black Hole by Bucky Sinister, which is all about gentrification and about divides between rich and poor and about the connections between people. And there's all this weird stuff in it like rich people are like growing genetically engineered miniature whales to have in their offices. And there's a drug that the main character takes that causes him to become unstuck in time so that he's kind of bouncing between, you know, the kind of dystopian over-gentrified present and like various points in the past. And it's like this kind of weird thing of like being disconnected, and unstuck, but also realizing how important these connections to other people actually are to you.
Annalee: [00:19:41] All right. We're going to take a quick break and when we come back we're going to talk about the next wave of anti-capitalist writers and we're going to interview K.M. Szpara whose new novel, Docile, is coming out next year.
[00:19:53] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:20:08] So, I wanted to start this segment off with another clip. This time it's from L.A. Kauffman, who is a longtime activist. She helped organize the anti-WTO protests back in the mists of time and she spent about 25 years working on a book that I highly recommend called Direct Action, which is all about protest movements after the 1960s, which as she points out is considered by many people to be kind of a black hole where no activism took place. And she's saying actually no the opposite. And so in this clip she talks a little bit about that.
L.A. Kauffman: [00:20:45] We're in a moment, in fact, it slowed down a little bit in the last few months, but the period after Donald Trump took office witnessed more protest activity than any comparable period in American history. The numbers are staggering. It's somewhere between 15 and 22 million Americans took part in protests in the first, roughly 18 months of the Trump presidency. And even if you adjust for inflation growth, that is a lot more people than protested at the height of the Vietnam War. We have these received ideas about the level of conflict and dissent that there was at the height of the, of the antiwar movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement. But, in fact there's much more of it now, much more in absolute numbers. And also in geographic spread. There are many more communities. They're not just more protests happening, but there's more communities where protests are happening than there have been in the past.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:50] I mean, it's so heartening to think that we are at kind of a high point in activism right now that like that's most engaged that we've ever been as a culture, which—
Annalee: [00:21:59] Yeah, and I think one of the things that is really important that Kauffman brings up is that these are protests that are distributed everywhere and that's partly a result of new technologies. But it's just also a way of, again, reclaiming that idea of a local community. Instead of having a kind of centralized organization that says like, all right, we're all going to march on Washington and that's the only thing that's going to count. You have a more decentralized model, which I think comes out of things like Black Lives Matter and Occupy where you organize like a protest in your own hometown. Even if it's a small town, it doesn't have to be a fancy ass place like New York or Chicago or Atlanta or something like that.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:41] So, Annalee, what are some of these new wave of novels and works and TV shows that are dealing with the downside of capitalism?
Annalee: [00:22:49] So I think there's a big range. And part of the reason I wanted to have L.A. Kauffman in there talking about this was that I think we're at a point now where anti-capitalism looks really different depending on what community you're in. And so, for example, a movie like Downsizing or a movie like Us could both be considered anti-capitalist even though one is quite tropey. It's very clear in Downsizing, like, what the hell they're talking about. Whereas the movie Us, whatever criticism you want to make of how it's a bit incoherent, it's still trying to clearly tell a story that's anti-capitalist in a very, very different way.
[00:23:24] And then there's stuff like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s book, Bitch Planet, a comic book series, which is about a really patriarchal form of capitalism that kind of takes over all of Planet Earth and people who rebel against it are sent to a women's prison on another planet, which is nicknamed Bitch Planet. It's a surveillance capitalism state, but it's also a bit like Gilead, it's ruled by white men and it's not as rigid as Gilead, because women are able to do certain things. But they use propaganda to make it clear that women's roles should be in the home or in a very low income type job. So it's kind of an enforced back to the 1950s sort of idea.
[00:24:09] And then there's stuff like Tade Thompson's series that starts with Rosewater, and the new one, Insurrection, just came out. It's set in Nigeria outside of Lagos. And it's about imagining how a strange alien blob comes down to the planet. It's not really a blob, it's sort of a dome.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:29] Right.
Annalee: [00:24:29] And it encases a bunch of people inside of it who are trying to build a better world that's explicitly kind of anti-urban and anti-capitalist. It's sort of anti-gangster capitalism of the kind that you see in a lot of kind of oligarchies. And it's terrifically interesting and it really does raise these questions about what does a collectivity look like? How do you resist a system that is so all pervasive.
[00:24:54] There's Everfair by Nisi Shawl.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:57] Yeah! I was super-excited to talk about that one because I feel like that hits all those notes you were mentioning before about community and connectedness and it's an alternate history where basically the Belgian Congo instead of just being horribly exploited and brutalized by the Belgians, a chunk of it gets to become an independent country called Everfair. Because they basically just buy the land from the King of Belgium, a group of socialists in London buy the land and help the local people to set up a kind of independent socialist country and it's just, it's beautiful because it is this vision of how things could be different, and how we could fight against exploitation. And it's not a top-down. Even though there are these like socialists from the UK who kind of help to make it happen, it's not a top-down thing. It's a kind of, everybody comes together and everybody kind of brings their own kind of vision and their own creativity to making this happen. And it's so rich and amazing and such a lovely story. It's a book that I think everybody should read for sure, Everfair.
Annalee: [00:25:58] I'd also add, and again maybe you'll disagree with me, but I think Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning kind of fits into this too because it's set after capitalism has kind of fallen.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:14] Right?
Annalee: [00:26:14] Because there's been this incredible disaster in the United States that's a partially supernatural disaster. But as a result, indigenous people in New Mexico are able to build their own walled city. Again, partially with magic, but also partially just out of their own ingenuity and out of decades and centuries of having to survive under white rule in very reduced circumstances. And so, they're the ones who are prepared.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:44] Yeah. Their marginalization is what enables them to survive the catastrophe and what enables them to kind of like build a new fairly inclusive world. It's not perfect, but it's a world that, you know, has room for everybody within that society. And it's a very powerful sense of community in that book, which I really loved.
Annalee: [00:27:03] It also has one of the hallmarks, I think, of some of this anti-capitalist literature where there's no kind of separation between the world of science and the world of the supernatural, which I feel like crops up again and again in stories that are questioning capitalism, and—
Charlie Jane: [00:27:21] That's interesting, yeah.
Annalee: [00:27:22] I'm not sure what I would say about it other than part of the idea that magic and the supernatural are completely separate from rationality comes out of capitalism and it comes out of a scientific perspective that's strongly informed by capitalism and that's strongly informed by the idea that we need to have a realm of pure logic.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:49] Capitalism in order to function requires predictability, or requires to be able to—you need to be able to buy futures, literally. In commodities.
Annalee: [00:27:57] But that’s magical thinking.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:58] It is in a way, but it's also this idea that we know that this thing is going to happen on this date. We know that this IPO is going to happen on this date. We know that these things are going to arrive. We're looking forward to the next quarter and we're… everything is kind of, there's a certain element of things needing to be kind of rational and predictable in capitalism. And the supernatural, by its nature, is often unpredictable and kind of—
Annalee: [00:28:21] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:21] —it’s more…
Annalee: [00:28:21] I was thinking also of how that kind of logic leads to the idea that humans are chattel and that there's a kind of rationality behind things like 17th and 18th century slavery of Africans. There is a scientific explanation given which we now call scientific racism, because we actually figured out that it was. Good for us, 50 years ago. I think that there's a lot of ways that we articulate that capitalism is the wrong future and the wrong present that aren't just in the kind of old school story of a bunch of great men lead us on a revolution.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:07] Right.
Annalee: [00:29:07] And set up a new state for us. I think there are models now of statelessness. Group therapy instead of the state.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:15] Yay.
Annalee: [00:29:15] And there's also models of different kinds of leaders, different kinds of ways that leadership can be imagined. And a lot of that has to do with different communities participating in criticizing capitalism. So it's not just old white dudes criticizing it. And, you know, some of those old white dudes had a point. But I think now that people of color are participating and queer people and disabled people, people who have a different perspective on oppression than just the old white dudes. It's really changing the stories we tell.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:47] So, and now we're going to talk to K.M. Szpara about his novel Docile, which comes out next year and which falls perfectly into this conversation we've been having about anti-capitalist storytelling.
Annalee: [00:29:57] Can't wait to hear from him.
[00:29:57] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:12] We're so lucky now to be joined by K.M. Szpara, the author of the forthcoming novel Docile, which is one of my favorite books of 2019 already and such a great work about capitalism and it has that tagline, “There is no consent under capitalism,” which I feel it says so much. I read Docile a while ago. It's the story of a young man who, basically, in order to get rid of his family's debt, kind of sells himself into indenture working for this guy, or kind of being the property of this guy who is the heir to the fortune that created this drug called Dociline that is used to keep these indentured people kind of from having any thoughts or will of their own. And he surprises everybody by refusing to take Dociline.
[00:30:55] And where did this story come from, Kellan?
Kellan: [00:30:57] Oh Gosh. It definitely came from one of those conversations about choice, right? So, I have a friend from high school and we were discussing when she got married, whether or not she was going to take her husband's last name. And there is that sort of impetus of if you choose to take someone's last name, are you making that choice completely independent as if that existed in its own bubble or are you doing it in part a lot because there is sort of a belief that you will. And that spun out into a lot of other thinking. I usually come up with characters and relationships first. So I knew a lot of the sex scenes I wanted to write in advance, and then I took a lot of my feelings about choice and layered them very heavily on top of this.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:47] Could you tell us more about the world building? Like this is a world in which basically debts can be inherited and families never really escape from debt, right?
Kellan: [00:31:55] Yeah. I just thought the clear next step, which I hope never ever happens is you know, why couldn't an individual person pay off your debt? Loans, etc., are sold all the time, right? I had a ton of student loan that were resold to different loan companies sort of without my permission. Right? So, in this world, you can basically sell your debt to either a person acting on behalf of a corporation or an individual citizen who’s just wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. And they feel good about it, right? Because they're making so much debt go away by buying it up, which is horrific, right? Because you're entering a system of indenture, then.
[00:32:32] I joke sometimes, like, you know, oh all I want is some hot rich guy to pay off all my student loans. But you definitely don't it want it under this circumstance. This is the worst nightmare future.
Annalee: [00:32:45] I wanted to ask you about the sex scenes, which you brought up previously as something that you were thinking about a lot and I wonder what is the connection between the sex and the kind of nightmarish vision of capitalism? Like, does sex provide a way of telling the story about lack of consent or does it also have kind of a liberatory function? Like, is the sex kind of a protest against the system? Or is that all just not the right way to talk about it? Or none of the above?
Kellan: [00:33:17] It’s funny, because I very adamantly have the opinions that sex is both absolutely about telling plot and the interactions between two characters. And then it's also about butts. It's important to me that it be both. Right? So, I mean, I like writing sex and I tell most of my stories through it. And part of the reasons I do that is because there's this vulnerability, when two people come together for this sort of huge, awkward moment. When it really comes down to it, when you're not sitting in a board room, when you're not harvesting like all the institutional power you have with people wearing suits, when you're not somebody who's standing, you know, on their family farm, just like hoping not to get dragged off to debtor's prison. When you're just like two naked people in a room. Like, what does that look like in this specific power setting, right?
[00:34:09] The sex scenes were very strategically planned out. It wasn't just like, “Oh, I want them to boff a lot,” which I absolutely did, but also.
Annalee: [00:34:19] Fair.
Kellan: [00:34:20] But like also it was very much like, okay, like so-and-so is going to give so-and-so a blowjob here. This person's going to get a rim job, but not until later because they haven't breached the sort of like social protocol line yet.
Charlie Jane: [00:34:35] Huh.
Kellan: [00:34:35] They're not sort of a mix and match, like they're very much in a specific order. For example, the sort of like active penetrating someone, that goes back to like a sort of Roman notion of the penetrator is the powerful party. Which of course I also went to a Harvard Divinity School and wrote like a big paper on like penetration and religion at one point, which I don't remember, but desperately need to look up again. And so like there's never a penetration by Elijah, the protagonist, who's the debtor. He doesn't penetrate the person who bought him in the whole novel. Like that would be a huge deal.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:10] Right.
Kellan: [00:35:10] So, it's thought out.
Annalee: [00:35:12] So, basically, it sounds like you're telling the story of this kind of class conflict, but at the same time they're taking off their clothes and they're kind of getting rid of their class positions.
Kellan: [00:35:22] Yeah. I mean they are, and, but it's still very sort of scary and stratified in that place. So—
Charlie Jane: [00:35:30] Yeah. I mean the sex has a power dynamic. It's like the owner using his property, which like, it's actually kind of rape in a lot of cases.
Kellan: [00:35:38] Yeah. So, Alex, who is the other main character, this is not a spoiler. He thinks that Elijah is going to take Dociline, just like everyone else does. And so he was like, all right, I get to have sex tonight. And then when Elijah says no, he's like, oh my God, I have to have sex tonight. I don't know how to do this with this person now. Like, and begins immediately to sort of plan things out. It's a totally different world when you have to like, look at the cow you're about to eat, right?
Charlie Jane: [00:36:06] Yeah. He has to exercise power over his property without having this drug to make it easy for him. And that's part of what's so interesting and part of what I loved about this book is that in parts it feels like a conventional romance story, but then you keep finding ways to remind us that it's actually not, that it's actually really exploitative. Do you think in the end that we're supposed to kind of forgive Alex for his role as an exploiter or do you think it's supposed to be ambiguous?
Kellan: [00:36:30] I wouldn't call it ambiguous but it definitely ends where it does for a reason. I don't try to fix the world they’re in. Right? I'm not writing a sequel to this book and I wouldn't attempt to. I just want curtain fic for them for the rest of their days. Those poor babies have been through enough. But I'm not out to like put an apologist spin on Alex's life. I also wanted to give a real honest, and I'm trying to use my words very carefully here, but I guess sort of a sympathetic nod to like the notion that like lots of people are born into things that they've been brainwashed to believe is true and to undo all of that, it is a ton of work, and so like should Alex be forgiven? I don't know, that's up to the reader. Right.
[00:37:20] I think that he is on a good path. That's like sort of my goal for him was to do a lot of hard work. I think too often in media, there's like the super-rich person, who’s like, I'll just give everything up and run away with you, my love. And I'm like, that’s not realistic. If someone came to me, like, the notion of like giving up everything I've ever known is very hard. It's a very hard challenge that we face like our own internalized privilege and like there are a lot of very true to me parts in Elijah, that sort of rebellion. And there's also a lot of true to me parts in Alex that were just like, these are sort of like the little ugly pieces of all of us.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:57] What do you think is the value of having these super intensely personal stories that kind of provide metaphors for, you know, things like debt and ownership and, you know—
Annalee: [00:38:05] Lack of consent.
Kellan: [00:38:06] Yeah
Charlie Jane: [00:38:06] —and lack of agency and under capitalism.
Kellan: [00:38:08] I consider books to be opinions. It's hard for me to give, sort of my opinion on all of these notions in fewer than a 140,000 words, cough. Which is why this was so valuable. I think there's a lot of sort of areas of gray in here, right? I think that consent and privilege and the way we deal with those things, like, in capitalism, there isn't this sort of black and white, right or wrong, you know. We're all sort of handed these different pieces. For example, there are two characters in the book who were Dociles as children and they deal with that as adults who are in sort of an upper class now, in different ways.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:49] And a Docile is somebody who was put into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. Right?
Kellan: [00:38:53] Right. That’s the term for a debtor who goes through this sort of system. I always sort of like sympathized with both of their reactions to that. They’re both doing what they have to do to get by, nowadays. Whereas my editor was pointing at one and being like, I don't like him. And I was like, how can you not after all he's been through, like we tell people to deal with their trauma in a very specific way. I think that's very unfair. We’re all just doing the best that we can and things like debt are crushing our generation right now. Like this book, very ironically, allowed me to pay off 90% of my student loans.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:31] Oh God.
Annalee: [00:39:34] Congratulations.
Kellan: [00:39:34] Thank you.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:34] That is amazing.
Kellan: [00:39:36] It’s so limiting. It's really limited our generations’, you know, this one and the next. We're getting loud about it now and I can't think of a better way to be loud about it then through like a story about two guys fucking.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:50] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:39:52] Hot gay sex is the cure for everything.
Kellan: [00:39:54] Thank you [inaudible].
Charlie Jane: [00:39:55] I love Docile so much and I'm so excited for it to be out in the world. When does it come out again?
Kellan: [00:39:58] It comes out March 3rd, 2020 which is now under nine months away.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:05] Yay. I'm so excited. And where can people find you online?
Kellan: [00:40:07] I am @KMSzpara, that's K-M-S-Z-P-A-R-A on Twitter and Instagram. And that's also my web address.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:19] Thanks so much for coming and talking to us. This was such a great conversation.
Kellan: [00:40:22] Absolutely!
Charlie Jane: [00:40:23] I'm really glad you were able to make time and you know, I can't wait for everybody to be able to read Docile.
Kellan: [00:40:28] Well, cheers and thank you and you both were just as smart as I thought you were going to be.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:31] Aw.
Annalee: [00:40:34] As were you, so thanks very much for joining us and we'll see you soon.
Kellan: [00:40:38] Absolutely.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:39] See you soon.
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Annalee: [00:40:54] You've been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow us on Twitter @OOACpod. You can find us wherever fine podcasts are purveyed. You can support us on Patreon, which we really appreciate, because we don't make any money on this, so, we'd love to just break even and we really appreciate anything you can do to help out.
[00:41:16] This episode was produced by Layla Moheimani and Veronica Simonetti at Women’s Audio Mission here in glorious San Francisco. And thanks to Chris Palmer for the music. And thanks to you for listening.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:28] Thank you. We love you. Bye.
Annalee: [00:41:29] We love you, bye!
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