Episode 25: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:08] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who thinks about science quite a lot.
Annalee: [00:00:11] Do you think about science when you are drinking coffee?
Charlie Jane: [00:00:17] Oh yeah. I mean, I think about thermodynamics, I think about chemistry.
Annalee: [00:00:21] What about when you’re like picking out an outfit in the morning?
Charlie Jane: [00:00:23] I definitely think about the chronodynamics of my outfit and I’m like, what kind of effect it’s gonna have on the timeline.
Annalee: [00:00:31] Wow.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:31] Yep. For sure.
Annalee: [00:00:32] This is an—I love you because of the chromodynamics in your outfit.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:35] Aww. I knew there was some reason.
Annalee: [00:00:36] Yeah. That’s—that’s totally it. So, we’re not actually talking about Charlie’s outfits today. We’re going to be talking about the deep future of humanity in science fiction. Basically what’s gonna happen to humans over the next 10,000 years, maybe even the next 1,000,000 years. And how do we imagine that, because it’s really far away, so there’s a lot of speculative craziness. And then, as a super-special treat, we’re going to talk about Charlie’s new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night which came out this month, February, and also involves predicting the deep future of humanity. So you’re going to get to hear Charlie’s thought process on how she did that. So, I’m excited to know more.
[00:01:19] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:46] So, Annalee, what does it take to imagine the future of humanity? What kind of things do you have to consider when coming up with a future history?
Annalee: [00:01:54] So, there’s a lot of different ways to think about the future. Obviously, a lot of science fiction is what we call, “near future” science fiction, so it’s looking at stuff anywhere from the next five years to maybe the next fifty to a hundred years. I mean, everyone has a different definition of near future, but I tend to think of it as, anything that’s like, within basically a very long human lifespan. And after that, you know, you kind of have middle range, which is kind of where Star Trek sits, where it’s a couple centuries in the future. And then there’s these far-future stories which go way way way into the future, sometimes tens of thousands, sometimes millions of years into the future. And those are in some ways the hardest in order to make them feel realistic. But they’re also the most freeing, because you’re so far away from Earth and humanity as it is now that you can kind of do whatever you want and justify it. Because you can be like, well, it’s been 10,ooo years, so… Or, it’s been 100,000 years, we’ve evolved into something else over that time. So I find that—
Charlie Jane: [00:02:55] Snail people.
Annalee: [00:02:57] Snail people. That’s basically how you do it, by the way, is you just add a snail to everyone and then it’s immediately futuristic. So, there’s a couple ways that science fiction does this, and I wanted to start out with a clip from a great cult movie with Christian Bale—
Charlie Jane: [00:03:14] Amazing.
Annalee: [00:03:14] —called Equilibrium. And this is from the opening sequence, where we learn the future history. It’s kind of near future, it’s kind of far future. And, this is how they do it:
Equilibrium Clip: [00:03:26] In the first years of the 21st century a third world war broke out. Those of us who survived knew mankind could never survive a fourth. That our own volatile natures could simply no longer be risked. So we have created a new arm of the law, the Grammaton Cleric whose sole task it is to seek out and eradicate the true source of man’s inhumanity to man. His ability to feel…
Annalee: [00:04:14] So, setting aside Grammaton Clerics, which is like, okay, we fight for good syntax? Like…
Charlie Jane: [00:04:21] They’re like, “You did not use the Oxford comma! We will cleanse you!”
Annalee: [00:04:25] Yeah, which version of whose are you using? Did you spell there right? We are Grammaton. But we all know, those of us who’ve seen this fine and wonderful film, that what the Grammaton Clerics mostly do is called Gunkata which is a new martial art with guns. Which is how futuristic this is, because imagine that! Martial arts with guns. But it’s also a future where—the way that the movie is signaling to us with this clumsy opening voice over that it’s the far future is they change one dramatic thing. Which is that this is a future where they now have a drug that can suppress everyone’s emotions, which is a completely ridiculous idea. It makes no sense scientifically unless you’re in The Far Future, in which case we can do shit like that.
[00:05:13] We see that pattern cropping up a lot in, especially films, where it’s like, we’re in the far future, but really only one major thing is different. And sometimes that thing is like, civilization has fallen and so now we’re living in roving bands. Or, it’s something like this, where it’s like, we have turned off our emotions and we’ve become cannibals and that’s kind of the shorthand for saying that.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:33] That’s often how you get dystopias, right? Because dystopias are often like, “What if everybody suddenly started walking on their hands?” and like…
Annalee: [00:05:40] And sometimes those kinds of predictions—well, they’re not really predicitions—but these kinds of speculative worlds can get really complicated. And I think there’s great examples—for example, in Ursula LeGuin’s books, the cluster of novels she wrote about a far future society with many worlds in it—
Charlie Jane: [00:05:58] It’s the Hainish—
Annalee: [00:05:59] The Hainish Cycle.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:00] —Cycle. And it’s like, sort of—they’re very loosely linked. I’ve actually just been re-reading them.
Annalee: [00:06:05] And so, it’s like Left Hand of Darkness, The Disposessed, those are like the two classic, but there’s a bunch more. And it’s kind of about humanity in thousands and thousands of years and the reason why they’re very complex is because you know, LeGuin isn’t just saying, like, “We changed the one thing.” “We have Grammaton Clerics now.” She’s saying, like, actually, humanity has branched into kind of multiple different cultural groups, depending on what planet they live on. And they’ve kind of lost touch with each other in some cases, and are revisiting each other sort of as anthropologists. There’s aliens in some cases. And so, I think it becomes, quickly, a much more complicated account of like, what it would be like to be in the far future.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:46] Yeah, and in fact, I think in her universe, humans didn’t originate on Earth. Earth is one of the planets that we were kind of seeded onto or that we colonized at some point in the past and we forgot about that. It’s interesting you bring up those books because in the case of those books, LeGuin throws in a million different ideas for how people could change and some of them… Like, she talked very honestly about the fact that she ended up thinking that some of were kind of not a good idea. Like, for example, in the early Hainish books, there’s a thing called “Mindspeech” which, you know, the first three books it’s in, and then it’s also in The Left Hand of Darkness, and it’s this kind of telepathic communication that you can have with somebody when you’ve kind of gotten really close to them emotionally and psychologically, you can speak to them telepathically. And she basically decided that that really didn’t make any sense or that she didn’t like that idea anymore so she just kind of retconned it away for the later books. And was just like, “Oh, they don’t do that anymore,” or…
Annalee: [00:07:41] That’s so interesting. You know, it’s funny because I feel like telepathy is a big part of a lot of books that look at the far future of humanity, Octavia Butler includes it in a number of her books. Most notably, the Patternmaster series, which really does jump many—it’s like tens of thousands of years into the future and humanity has diverged into multiple species.
[00:08:02] But we also see it in a number of other places where that’s kind of the signal that we’ve become more than human somehow. We’re able to communicate mentally. But then there’s also a whole cycle of novels which are about post-humanity, post-scarcity worlds. I think Iain M. Banks’ Culture series is probably one of the best examples of this, where it’s kind of an Ursula LeGuin scenario. Humanity has kind of seeded multiple planets, but we have basically transcended our bodies through using technological enhancements. We can upload our brains. We can put ourselves into multiple bodies. There’s AIs that are super-intelligent and kind of just take care of us for some reason that we never fully understand. Sometimes the AIs explain, like, well, we just kind of like you. You know, you’re very amusing and you seem nice. And of course some of the AIs don’t care for humans.
[00:08:59] That’s one other vision, I think. And so, not so much about psychic powers or about humans evolving to be other creatures, but simply that we take complete control of our evolution.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:07] It’s interesting because so many science fiction writers have created these elaborate, complicated future histories, like from Olaf Stapledon to like, Robert A. Heinlein, to LeGuin and Butler and a bunch of others. What is it that makes a future history seem plausible versus just like a fanciful bunch of stuff that happened?
Annalee: [00:09:27] Yeah, I mean, it’s a good question. I think complexity has something to do with it. I think that’s why both the Culture series and the Hainish Cycle to me feel like very good examples of how that can work. Because we see, in both those cycles of books, there’s a lot of astropolitics. There’s a lot of diversity of human life. Humans have had a number of different experiences as they’ve gone out into the universe. I mean, all of these are stories that assume we’ll go into space. So there’s a certain trajectory there, too. That’s a trope. And I should probably question that, too, and say like, “Well, why do we have to go into space?” You know.
[00:10:07] I think that the Dying Earth, which is by—is that by—
Charlie Jane: [00:10:09] Jack Vance, yeah.
Annalee: [00:10:09] The Dying Earth is a great example of one where I don’t think we do go into space. I think we wind up on Earth and Earth is just getting older and older and there’s—it becomes a kind of fantasy world. I was going to say, that’s another interesting way that we signal the far future, often, in these books is that it looks like fantasy. You know, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, like, say what you will, I love dragons, so I’m like, all about that. But that’s a series where humans have colonized another world that have indigenous creatures like dragons there and it has its own kind of ecosystem where the dragons are required to maintain fertility on the planet. But it feels like fantasy when you’re reading it. It’s like, it’s humans riding dragons. But it’s actually the far future and we see the same thing in Richard Morgan’s series that starts with The Steel Remains. Which is also far future, but it turns out—you at first think it’s just a world of elves and magic. I think N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series is a similar example where it feels like it’s magic but maybe it’s super technology. Once you get into the far future, you get to do a lot more genre blending.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:16] Once all of the trappings of the present and the science that we understand today are kind of stripped away, you can get to this weird fantastical realm and it can get really trippy. I think that’s one of the ways that you know that it’s the far future versus the near future, is that it gets trippy as fuck. And you’re just tripping balls the whole time because it’s the far future.
Annalee: [00:11:38] I wanted to play another clip which I think demonstrates a trope in this kind of area. This is from a movie that all of you should have seen called, D War: Dragon Wars.
D War: [00:11:50] Everyone believes the time of dragons has passed. But the time of dragons has only just begun. Every 500 years a young woman is born. A woman who possesses a spirit power that can turn a serpent into the mightiest dragon of all. A good serpent will use this mighty power to protect the universe. An evil serpent will use the mighty power to destroy the world. Now is the time for the spirit to be awakened. Now is the time for destiny to unfold. [Extremely dramatic music].
Annalee: [00:12:37] So, this is a movie that’s set in present-day Earth, but it’s all about a prophecy about a kind of magical thing and it sort of signals to us that we’re in deep time because this is something that happens every 500 years. And I think that one of the parts of this kind of fantasy future often involves prophecy. And I was thinking about that a lot in the context of the Dune books and the many movies and mini-series that have been made of the Dune books, because those are set in a fantastical far future that also involves a prophecy and part of the way that our minds, I think, are able to kind of wrap themselves around the idea of like, thousands of years in the future is to think in the context of like, what if we predicted something now that would come true in this distant place.
That’s also in the Foundation books, by the way, Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation Cycle, which is very hard SF in many ways, but it’s far future and it’s about a prophecy, basically. Computers come up with the prophecy, but it’s still a prophecy that we’re entering into a new dark ages and we need to kind of gird our loins or whatever for the dark ages. I mean, they don’t actually gird their loins. They do other things.
[00:13:46] So, I think that prophecy is kind of built into this and I think you kind of get a cheesy version of it in D War, where like, the dragons come back. Which, by the way, is a great movie if you love dragons. This is like a sort of subplot about dragons in this episode for some reason.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:58] It’s you know… yeah. I love D War.
Annalee: [00:14:03] But I think in Dune, you get the more—the complexity that we were talking about before from Ursula LeGuin and Iain M. Banks where there’s a huge geopolitical conflict that we find out about, with AIs kind of being demonized. There’s a whole jihad that happens where—which is called jihad in the books because a lot of the Culture is influenced by Islam. And, it’s a jihad against AI, basically, and then that helps explain why they have these post-human bodies where they’ve been—where humans have been augmented with technology because they’re using humans instead of computers for a lot of their transport and computer crap. Whatever the computery crap of the future. They actually have a class of humans, Mentats, that are basically computers.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:49] You know, I love the complicated space politics. I love any kind of, like you said, I think complexity is a big part of making these future histories of the human race and like, what we’re going to become, feel plausible even if they get trippy and weird and kind of off the chain in terms of, like, you know, we’re all gonna have seven heads and ten pairs of wings, and whatever. You know, we’re all going to be snail people, basically.
Annalee: [00:15:10] We’re gonna be riding on the backs of dragons or giant worms…
Charlie Jane: [00:15:15] Snail people riding on dragons, riding on worms, basically. But, you know—
Annalee: [00:15:18] Drinking spice water.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:20] To me, I think that part of what makes a future history, or any kind of future scenario feel plausible is that human nature hasn’t necessarily changed that much. Like, even if we’ve become like, kind of a slightly different species. Even if our resource constraints are not the same as the resource constraints that we’re facing in the early 21st century, something has to be recognizeable about human nature and politics. The thing that throws me out of a future history is when I feel like, kind of the Star Trek thing, the thing that Star Trek flirts with, like, “Oh, we’ve eliminated the bad parts of human nature,” or…
Annalee: [00:15:56] Yeah, we have no more war, no more starvation.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:56] Yeah. We’ve gotten rid of all of our negative personality. Sort of like in Equilibrium, but it’s shown as being sort of like, a good thing. The idea that we can “transcend our humanity.” Which, I think makes it harder for me to buy into the story.
Annalee: [00:16:12] And that brings us to our break, and when we come back we’re going to get to interrogate Charlie about how she did this in her own work.
[00:16:20] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:16:34] All right. Welcome back. This is when I get to ask Charlie a little bit about her book. I’ve been so excited about this novel for so long because I read an early draft. I read a later draft. It’s amazing. It’s called The City in the Middle of the Night. You can buy it now. And, it’s set in the far future of humanity. First, tell us what the far future is, because I don’t think that’s a spoiler, it’s just the set-up for the novel. And then, how did you come up with it? How did you backfill, and like, how much is in the book, and how much did you just write down for yourself and now we’re going to get some good backstory?
Charlie Jane: [00:17:10] Yeah, so, I think it’s the far future, depending on how you define it. At one point, towards the end of the book, this is not really a spoiler, you finally find out what the date is according to Earth chronology, and the date is, I think, the 33rd century.
Annalee: [00:17:25] I think you’re safely in the far future.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:27] Yeah, it’s the 33rd century. It takes place on this other planet called January that humans colonized a long time ago. I would say back of the envelope, humans have been there for about 500 Earth years. And it was a long voyage from Earth and it was probably like the 26th century when they left Earth. And obviously there’s like all the stuff of when you travel interstellar distances there’s time dilation and all that kind of stuff. But basically it’s the 33rd century back on Earth.
[00:17:54] I kind of came up with this whole complicated human society on this other planet where humans are living in these two different cities—
Annalee: [00:17:59] On the planet January.
Charlie Jane: [00:17:59] On the planet January. And part of the background of the story is that it’s a planet that’s tidally locked which means that one side always faces the sun, one side always faces away from the sun. There’s a permanent day side and a permanent night side. On my planet, at least, humans live in the narrow strip of twilight which is called the terminator in between the day side and the night side. Part of what I thought about a lot is that on this planet, people don’t have a good way of measuring the passage of time, like, the sun doesn’t rise or set. The sky never really changes. Everything kind of looks the same all the time.
Annalee: [00:18:34] This would totally mess up your circadian rhythms.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:36] It would.
Annalee: [00:18:36] It would freak me out. Like, my body needs that.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:38] Yeah, and it kind of—it kind of has this dream-like feel, kind of. For people who’ve grown up in it and lived with it their whole lives. And in one of the two human cities, they have, basically created curfews and other arrangements to make sure that everybody sleeps and works on a very strict day/night schedule that’s like, fully artificial. And then in the other city they just do whatever the hell they want, and everybody’s kind of out of control and a little bit unhinged. And, you know, it’s something that if you grow up with it maybe you’re more used to it, but it is really disturbing and weird. And that was part of what I tried to do was convey how weird and disturbing it was.
[00:19:14] But in the course of doing this, I had to really think about who were these people before they came to this planet. Like, it would have been really really easy to just say, welp, they’re on the planet now. They’ve been there for like 500 years, so it doesn’t really matter what their cultures were before they left Earth because that’s the distant past to them. And I could have probably gotten away with that. I probably could have just been like, “Well, whatever.”
[00:19:37] Part of the reason I didn’t want to get away with that is because it felt unreal to me. It didn’t feel like—it didn’t feel true to what I know about human nature, which is that we hold on to that stuff. We hold onto our ancestry and our heritage from like, long ago.
Annalee: [00:19:53] Yeah, I mean people today absolutely give a shit about what was going on 500 years ago. I mean, they’re—
Charlie Jane: [00:19:58] They absolutely do.
Annalee: [00:19:58] —we still have a lot of the same nations that were around. Speak the same languages that were around. We’re reading books that were written 500 years ago.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:07] Absolutely.
Annalee: [00:20:07] So, I think yeah. I think that would be really unrealistic.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:10] And people are still fighting conflicts that they were fighting 500 or even 1,000 years ago in some parts of the world.
Annalee: [00:20:17] Or, 3,000 years ago…
Charlie Jane: [00:20:19] Yeah, there are still things that people are—
Annalee: [00:20:21] Pissed.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:21] People are pissed about something that happened and the year 1100 or whatever. So, I felt like, you needed that kind of deep backstory of what happened before they left Earth and what happened on the way from Earth to this other planet, January. And part of what I thought about is how to handle race. How to handle ethnicity in this far future. And, again, some people handle ethnicity and race by basically just kind of sweeping it under the rug and saying, “Well, everybody’s interbred to the point where we’re all mixed-race and and race doesn’t exist anymore. And I didn’t entirely buy that. Partly because, I think it’s fair to say that ethnic groups might not be constructed or viewed the same in the year 3209 or whatever it is as they are currently. But I don’t think that we would just—I don’t think that people ever just get rid of the idea of like, your own ethnic groups, your own in-groups.
[00:21:13] Part of that is because it is connected to history and to this—all this heritage and all this cultural heritage, and all this shared trauma and all this stuff that happened in the past that people still consider important. So, I tried to think of a way to do it that wasn’t just sweeping it under the rug and wasn’t just kind of hand-waving it, or saying, “Well, some of these people have dark skin and some of them have light skin and that’s all I’m going to tell you about them. And they’re just all the same ethnic group now.
[00:21:38] So, I thought about it, and basically what I came up with was this, probably way too complicated backstory where basically, at some point in the next few hundred years from now, things get really bad environmentally. There are some disasters. There are probably some wars involving advanced weaponry that basically trash a lot of the planet’s surface.
Annalee: [00:21:55] On Earth.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:55] On Earth. And the remaining surviving humans live in, I name seven city-states that people lived in on Earth. There could have been others. But there are these seven city-states that are basically—I chose places that are not mostly what you’d call major cities today.
[00:22:11] One of them, for example, is Ulaan Batar in what is now Mongolia. One of them is Merida in what is now Mexico. One of them is Calgary.
Annalee: [00:22:18] Yay!
Charlie Jane: [00:22:19] And, you know, I had this whole complicated thing of like, for example, Calgary probably took in a bunch of refugees from the United States because it was the only place standing north of Mexico that people could go to. So, probably both Merida and Calgary took a bunch of refugees from the United States who probably caused a lot of trouble.
[00:22:38] Anyway, so—
Annalee: [00:22:38] Yeah, they probably tried to keep some of them out, too.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:42] Yeah, they probably tried to keep a lot of them out. You know, what comes around goes around.
Annalee: [00:22:43] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:43] In like the 23rd, 24th century, you have these seven city states and Zagreb in what’s now Croatia becomes basically, like, the Paris of the 24th century. It becomes the place that everybody goes to be civilized and to have fancy tea parties. And I came up with like—
Annalee: [00:23:00] Croatia’s also incredibly beautiful.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:02] It’s really beautiful, and Zagreb is famous for its beautiful coffee houses. It’s famous for it’s rich culture and so it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to think of it becoming like, the Paris of the 24th century. And I thought about what technological specialties each of these cities might have that they would contribute towards the mothership that they built to travel from Earth to January.
[00:23:24] For example, Khartoum in what’s now Sudan is basically the center of computing in the 24th/25th/26th centuries and it designed all the on-board computer systems in the mother ship, and a lot of the people who lived in Khartoum were cyborgs.
Annalee: [00:23:38] So that’s like, Khartoum valley or whatever.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:42] Yeah, pretty much.
Annalee: [00:23:42] Silicon Khartoum.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:43] Yeah, exactly. And so, you know, so on and so forth. And like, Merida in what’s now Mexico was like the aerospace capital, and so they designed all the engines and all the rockets and so I just sort of thought about all this stuff and came up with what I thought was like a plausible-ish future history that leads to all these resentments and anxieties that people in the 33rd century are still kind of chewing over. At least in the one city where everybody can do what they want. Where people talk about this stuff more freely.
[00:24:13] I wanted that level of detail because I want it to not feel like Lee Presson future. And I wanted it to not feel like either we have exactly the same ethnic groups and exactly the same issues that hwe had in the 21st century, or that we’ve just gotten rid of it, people don’t have that stuff anymore.
Annalee: [00:24:31] I think that’s super important because, as you were talking I was thinking about how one of the ways that future histories really come alive is if we do get a sense of that deep time. What has happened in that time, and how it’s evolved out of cultures that we have on Earth but also transcended them. But like you said, not letting go of the fact that humans are kind of designed to have in groups and out groups. I mean, not designed, but that’s something that—it’s a pattern that we fall into again and again.
[00:25:02] It’s comforting and it is a way of knowing who we are. It’s a way of remembering history. We remember history through myths, through stories, through saying, “These are our people and that’s what our people went through.”
[00:25:14] I mean, this is one of the things I loved about the novel, but I also—it’s super interesting to hear you kind of walking through all the stages, and like, I love that you kind of wrote this whole backstory that like, I assume some of it shows up in the book, but like, some of it we kind of don’t know all that stuff.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:31] I think you really see the tip of the iceberg in the book. And I think that somebody who reads the book really carefully and pays attention will glean a large amount of what I just said, but they won’t ever get, like… There’s no info dump. There’s no moment where, like, everybody just sits down and explains the backstory of like, what happened on earth and everything.
Annalee: [00:25:47] Which is also very realistic. Because we never sit down with each other and say, “As you know, 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation all people came to the for—”
[00:25:58] Actually, wait, Protestant Reformation was more like 400 years ago? I don’t know. What ever. Who cares. That’s not what we’re talking about right now.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:04] It was like 500.
Annalee: [00:26:06]Yeah, let’s go with that. I’m still dealing with that, and I’m still struggling.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:10] I think we all are. I think we definitely all are.
Annalee: [00:26:12] I think we’re all—we’re still kind of in recovery from that in the United States.
[00:26:16] So, this kind of leads me to my next question, which you were kind of addressing before, which is, okay, we’re in this incredibly alien environment with this huge chunk of history behind it. How do you create relatable characters in that? Like, how did, in that space, how did you think about making a character that would feel sufficiently alien but also relatable.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:37] It was really hard. There was a lot of just walking into walls over and over again, and going like, “Thud.” “Thud.” I mean, I remember, like, talking to you like three, four years ago. We were out on a walk, and I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like every character in this book is just in some way an alien.” They’re humans except that we do meet some actual aliens. Some actual—
Annalee: [00:26:55] Yeah, the indigenous people on the planet, are—
Charlie Jane: [00:26:59] We do meet some indigenous life forms who are not human, but everybody else is human. But, they’ve grown up on this other planet. They’ve lived in this other weird environment, and like, there’s a reason why my previous novel, All the Birds in the Sky takes place in very near future Earth, like maybe a few years into the future, with humans in a recognizeable setting. A lot of it takes place in San Francisco, which is a place that I could pretty much write about in my sleep at this point because I’ve lived here for so long.
[00:27:26] That was a lot easier and a lot more comfortable in some ways than writing about people living in this really different setting, really different set of expectations. And, you know, I remember whining to you about how hard it is to write people who live on another planet, and you know—
Annalee: [00:27:40] So, what was your big breakthrough. Like, what was the—like, with one of your characters, what was the moment where you were like, “Okay, this character feels real to me.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:48] I don’t think there was a big breakthrough. I think what there was was just a lot of filling in enough of their emotional inner life, and enough of their backstory and enough of how they deal with—a big theme in the book is trauma and it kind of relates back to this idea of the passage of time and not really being able to get a sense of the passage of time because the sun never rises or sets. And so, things that are in the past feel both more present and also harder to kind of grasp ahold of because you don’t know exactly how long ago things happened.
[00:28:23] Which I think is an interesting way of thinking about trauma. Trauma often distorts your sense of how recently something happened anyway.
Annalee: [00:28:29] And one of your characters, Mouth—her name is Mouth—she’s also dealing with her ethnic identity, which is an identity that didn’t ever exist on Earth but is kind of the source of her trauma.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:39] Yeah, and she was part of this group of nomads, this sort of intentional community that somehow, a hundred, two hundred or maybe three hundred years ago started walking around the planet and just sort of being nomadic. And they got wiped out except for Mouth and that’s not really a spoiler. And she’s still kind of struggling with that and still trying to figure out what it means to have been part of this community that was wiped out.
[00:29:03] That’s kind of a thing that resonates throughout the book. Honestly, for me, creating characters, there’s a lot that goes into it in terms of like, you kind of have to believe in them yourself. Like, I think that if the author really believes in the characters and really buys into the reality of their situation to the point where they can’t just like snap out of what they’re dealing with. They’re in it. It’s real to them. They can’t escape from it. If the author buys into it and believes in it, I feel like the reader is more likely to.
[00:29:33] And, you know, we were talking about this the other day, and I was saying that to some extent there’s a lot of acting that goes into this. Like, I feel like, I mean, I’m a failed actor. I used to do acting in high school and I was bad at it. But, I do a lot of acting now. Like, I will often act out a scene between two characters in my head or out loud in the shower or sometimes even on the street, unfortunately.
Annalee: [00:29:52] It’s true, I’ve seen her talk to herself on the street.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:55] I will act out, like, a confrontation between two characters because I want to understand what is each of them thinking as they go into this scene? What are they each kind of grappling with? What are they upset about? What are they dealing with? And, you know, I will just completely try to get in their headspace for that scene and get into character or whatever.
[00:30:15] You know, I think that the worldbuilding thing is also really important, especially if it’s a really unfamiliar setting. Like, talk about LeGuin, I’ve been re-reading all of her Hainish novels and just all these little details of like, food and smells and music and like, customs that are strange and unfamiliar. Just like, little sights and sounds and sensations add up to a sense that this world is real and then you kind of believe that if the world is real, the character is real.
[00:30:42] Our friend Claire Light actually really kind of kicked my ass with The City in the Middle of the Night to kind of go back. She was like, “So, there are places here where the worldbuilding doesn’t feel quite deep enough and you need to add just a little bit more of like, how the history comes out in everything you see and touch and everything.” I had to go back and kind of flesh that out a little bit more in some places.
Annalee: [00:31:01] Claire Light herself is an amazing worldbuilder, so you can check out her stuff. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:07] Yeah, we sure will. It’s all about the author suspending disbelief and then hopefully the reader suspending disbelief. But what throws me out of a story as a reader is when the characters don’t feel like they have a real reaction to what’s happening around them, or they don’t feel fully in the situation. And so that’s the thing that I kind of grapple with. But it was tough.
Annalee: [00:31:26] Yeah, I mean, it sounds like, from what you’re saying, that there’s the history that goes into the worldbuilding, like, kind of the civilization worldbuilding. But then, each character kind of has to have a history in order to understand their motivations. Because there’s this kind of classic thing of the actor saying, like, “What are my motivations?” And often the answer to that question is as silly as it is, and it’s often sort of made fun of, but it’s a real thing in acting. You kind of have to know where your character’s coming from. What was their experience with this kind of thing before? Like, you could enter into a situation that would make one person laugh and another person cringe and that’s the motivation, is finding out why that happened.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:03] Yeah. And actually, that’s a really good point about how people react really differently and unpredictably to situations. One of the tests of whether a character feels real and kind of fleshed out and interesting to me is how much they surprise me. Like, how much, as I’m writing them, they respond to a situation in a way that I’m like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought that’s how they’d respond, but okay, that actually makes perfect sense with what they’ve been dealing with.”
[00:32:28] It’s funny. The TV show, Lost, which I have a lot of critiques of. One thing that Lost did that I think was brilliant, and that I think about a lot these days, is whenever they would show a flashback of one of the characters, they were always kind of a completely different person in the flashback than they are now. You would see John Locke or whatever his name was, was this mild-mannered, weedy guy who was kind of meek and quiet. And on the island he’s this kind of bad-ass machete-wielding adventurer guy. And like, that was a thing that that show did a lot where whenever you saw a flashback, the characters would be somebody completely different in the flashback, and they would be like, oh, they’ve changed, but even before the show started. And I feel like that’s another thing that makes a character believable to me is that they didn’t just start changing when the story started. They’ve been changing even before. When we find out about their past, they’ve already been through changes.
Annalee: [00:33:19] All right, well, thanks for telling us a little bit of a tease about your book.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:23] Aww, thank you.
Annalee: [00:33:24] Yeah, and it’s called:
Charlie Jane: [00:33:26] The City in the Middle of the Night, and it is available now whereever people still sell books.
Annalee: [00:33:34] But try to get it from an indie bookstore, because they’re like, always—
Charlie Jane: [00:33:37] They’re the best.
Annalee: [00:33:37] —helping us out, and they’re places where you can get good recommendations. All right. Well, when we’re back, we will dive into the Research Hole and you can find out what Charlie and I have been researching when we should be writing.
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Charlie Jane: [00:34:04] So, Annalee, what have you been researching recently?
Annalee: [00:34:08] So, there’s a story that’s been circulating for a couple of weeks now about a discovery in Germany of the skeleton of a woman that’s about a thousand years old and the most interesting part of it was what was found in her teeth. Usually when archaeologists and anthropologists are trying to understand someone’s life, they will examine the calcium on their teeth. Because of course, people didn’t used to brush their teeth and go to the dentist and so stuff that they ate, stuff that they put in their mouth would turn into calcium layers on their teeth. Almost like tree rings or something. And you can kind of dig through it and you can learn things about their diet, their health, where they were born, and so that can tell you whether they traveled a distance.
[00:34:54] This group of scientists were examining these teeth and they found all of these little blue flecks. And they were like, first, okay, is this contamination, what is this? Was she eating rocks? We don’t understand. And they tested it and they found out the flecks were lapis lazuli.
[00:35:13] Which means two things. One, she was some kind of artist because a lot of illuminated manuscripts during the middle ages used lapis lazuli in their blue ink. And the other thing is lapis lazuli exclusively comes from Afghanistan, which means not only was this lady an artist, a thousand years ago, but she was a frickin’ fancy-ass artist. She had incredibly expensive imported ink that was highly valued. Very, very expensive. Possibly more expensive than gold.
[00:35:51] And this led to a much better understanding of who had lived at this site in Germany. It’s Dollheim, Germany. And currently, there is a monastery, like a ruined monastery there where men lived. But beneath that men’s monastery, there was a women’s community that thrived there over a thousand years ago. Maybe a dozen women lived there or less and they were clearly producing some of the most valued manuscripts of that time. There’s some records, we’re not sure exactly what manuscripts they created, but what they would have been doing was creating all of the illuminations, like all the drawings in the margins, which were very popular in medieval manuscripts. You’d have like, you can look this up online. There’s all these beautiful illuminated books with incredible illustrations of what’s in the text and sometimes even what isn’t in the text.
[00:36:40] So, there are some records of a nearby monastery sending out manuscripts to be done by other communities so it’s possible that they were doing this in connection with another monastery. But the point is that, to me, the thing I loved about this story was the fact that this group of archaeologists took the time to uncover this mystery about this one woman. This anonymous woman who in her lifetime must have been an incredible person, like incredibly connected, talented, working on some of the most valued books of the day. Her name is lost to time. Her community has been lost. It’s been literally buried underneath a men’s community.
But by excavating, we can learn so much about her. And there was just something so scientifically interesting but also culturally interesting and it kind of fits with what we’ve been talking about about history and how do you know your history? This is a piece of history that we just didn’t know. We didn’t know that there was this woman who was so bad-ass that she got this fucking fancy-ass lapis lazuli ink, and now we know that and actually it kind of changes the way I think about women’s history just to know that and the way I think about just the history of literacy in general.
[00:37:56] Also, they brought this lapis lazuli on the silk road all the way to Germany. So, that’s also like a whole other thing to think about.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:02] Amazing.
Annalee: [00:38:02] I love this story and we’ll put a link to it in the show notes, but lots of places have already written about it so you may have already read about it, but now you know more about why blue spots on a woman’s teeth can tell you about your history.
[00:38:17] Tell me about your research hole.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:17] So, my research hole is a little bit more recent and perhaps a little bit different. I’ve been obsessively researching about the feud between LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. Which was, I think the f—
Annalee: [00:38:29] Does this have a speculative element to it at all, or this is just your usual musical obsession?
Charlie Jane: [00:38:35] It’s just my usual musical obsession, you know, it’s interesting, this was the first kind of major feud in hip hop, and I feel like, you know, it kind of does feel like a superhero thing. It feels like a clash between two superheroes. I was thinking about it this morning, how it kind of puts me in mind of like, it makes me think of rappers becoming more super heroic because they have these giant clashes of titans.
[00:39:00] Basically, so Kool Moe Dee was like, one of the original old school rappers. Even before Sugar Hill Records he was recording, but he was with Sugar Hill Records. He became part of the group The Treacherous Three which was alongside Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and you know the Sugar Hill Gang. They were one of the first great rap groups. And then he continued to have a solo career after that.
[00:39:24] Then in the mid-‘80s, LL Cool J comes along and is kind of part of this new group of rappers. And a bunch of people felt like LL Cool J was stealing their rapping style and not crediting them. And so Kool Moe Dee, among other people kind of challenged him. But the fight between Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J became much more kind of intense and personal, with them writing lots and lots of lyrics about each other. Like, a lot of my favorite songs by both of them are actually just disses aimed at each other.
[00:39:51] Like, Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now” and LL Cool J’s “Jack the Ripper”, and like “Mama Said Knock You Out” and there’s a bunch of pages that talk about the different lyrics and how they comment on each others’ appearance, and like LL Cool J makes fun of Kool Moe Dee’s Star Trek sunglasses. There’s like a science fiction reference. And like Kool Moe Dee makes fun of LL Cool J for showing off his muscles and like and doing these schmoopy love songs that he was kind of the first to do those to that extent.
[00:40:23] It just kind of carried on into the ‘90s and they kept kind of putting out songs dissing each other and challenging each other to a rap battle that never actually happened, I don’t think.
Annalee: [00:40:32] Wow, they never actually had? I mean they kind of were having a battle.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:35] Yeah, they were battling through song lyrics aimed at each other, but they never, like, showed up and just battled each other.
Annalee: [00:40:40] I was hoping there would be like a Cardi B, Nicki Minaj moment or something where people would be like, hit with shoes or bitten or whatever.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:48] No, I don’t think so. I think that—I don’t even know how much, if they ever really met that much. I think that they just were throwing barbs at each other.
Annalee: [00:40:56] Wow.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:55] And at one point, like, Kool Moe Dee—
Annalee: [00:40:58] So polite.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:58] Kool Moe Dee was like, coming up with like, he had one song where he just came up with a million that the LL in LL Cool J could have stood for, which, by the way, it actually stands for Ladies Love Cool James, but he was like, “It could stand for Limp Lover” and there’s a million, like a bunch of things that LL could stand for and he was just…
Annalee: [00:41:19] I… yeah, I can imagine.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:20] You know, it’s kind of like when Iron Man and Thor fight.
Annalee: [00:41:23] Mm-hmm.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:23] It’s kind of like that.
Annalee: [00:41:25] It’s also kind of like—it helps kind of explain to me why I feel like super hero stories go so well with hip hop and rap.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:32] They do, yeah.
Annalee: [00:41:33] They really are like, they should always be together forever. Hip hop and rap should be the music of superheroes. And funk. I’ll throw funk in that too, for you.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:41] Okay thank you.
Annalee: [00:41:41] Just for you, yeah. And I think that’s why, for example, Into the Spiderverse, the music worked so well, because—
Charlie Jane: [00:41:48] Oh my God, I love that movie.
Annalee: [00:41:48] They were playing in that tradition with the music and so, yeah, it was just totally perfect, so. Wow, well thank you for that insight into—I’m still thinking about Cardi and Nicki, but it’s good to know that there was like a more polite, gentlemanly way of—
Charlie Jane: [00:42:04] I don’t think it was polite. I think that, you know—
Annalee: [00:42:06] I feel like it was gentlemanly because nobody threw anything. It’s just like the music. They were just fighting with the music.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:15] You know, compared to like, Biggie and Tupac, it was definitely not, you know.
Annalee: [00:42:19] Yeah. They were using their words.
[00:42:21] All right, so, that’s been another episode of Our Opinions Are Correct. Thank you for listening. If you like what you hear, please consider becoming a patron. You can find us on Patreon at o Our Opinions Are Correct. You can also download episodes whereever fine podcasts are are purveyed.
[00:42:37] Please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts if that’s what you’re using. It really helps people to find us. You can also follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod. And you can find us on Facebook, if you’re still using Facebook, which, whatever. And also, thanks to Veronica Simonetti and Women’s Audio Mission for amazing audio production and editing. Thanks to Chris Palmer for the music and thanks to you for listening.
Charlie Jane: [00:43:03] Yay! Thank you! We love you!
Annalee: [00:43:03] We love you, and we’ll be back in two weeks.
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