Interview: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She has been the recipient of Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Awards, among others. Her most recent novels are Ancestral Night and The Red-Stained Wings. “Lest We Forget” is Bear’s fourth appearance in Uncanny.

Uncanny Magazine: “Lest We Forget” is a war story told from an interesting perspective. I love the idea of contagious memories, spread by flatworms. There are a lot of elements here—war, consent, memory, biology—what was your starting point for this story, and how did it all come together?

Elizabeth Bear: This is one of those stories that just came together for me in a flash of inspiration. George McGovern, according to Gloria Steinem, said, “The men who love war are mostly the ones who have never been in it,” and as I grow older, it seems to me that this—jingoism—is a basic human tragedy. I’ve written several stories on the theme that if we thoroughly understand a thing, we are likely to see it as a nuanced, complex problem without simple answers, but rather with a lot of variables and a lot of ethical implications.

How often do we cry out in frustration, “If only you understood?!”

But the ethics of mind control are a little shaky. 😀

I had the idea of engineering planaria to spread memories to humans—perhaps without consent—for years before I managed to put together this story.

Uncanny Magazine: What happens after the end of the story? Do you think that infecting a large portion of humanity with these memories would be enough to stop future wars, or change the nature of how they are fought?

Elizabeth Bear: That’s always the question, isn’t it? I don’t know, frankly.

I wonder, if we shared a species-wide ancestral memory (which is certainly one possibility for how this future develops) would we be kinder and more empathic, or would be become even more dismissive and despising of each other?

I certainly think there are ethical reasons to fight a war. Self-defense, for example.

But I also think invaders justify their invasions under a lot of layers of denial and colonial entitlement. It’s lebensraum or manifest destiny, not genocide. There’s certainly an ethos of “It’s a dirty job, but it’s got to be done” that inflects certain brands of machismo.

Is knowing in advance how very dirty likely to change that? I just…cannot be sure.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite part of writing this story? What was the most difficult part?

Elizabeth Bear: I really enjoyed playing with the reader’s perceptions via the somewhat unreliable first-person narrator, and working out how to do the reveal at the end of how, exactly, the story is being told. That was also, curiously, the hardest part.

I enjoy writing this sort of theme-centered story that happens in fragments with a minimum of transition and exposition. It’s kaleidoscopic, when I can pull it out: the narrative emerges as if from a mosaic, and it lets me write stories that are very short but full of emotional impact.

Uncanny Magazine: If it was possible to experience someone else’s memories (not about war, but just in general) would you want to?

Elizabeth Bear: It’s a funny question for me. Memories are, of course, unreliable and full of read-write errors and confabulations. We don’t remember what actually happens: we remember a narrative we construct about what happens (when we remember anything at all).

There are huge chunks of my life where I have no idea what happened. We think we remember, but really it’s a blur with a few of the high points picked out and linked to associations—and seemingly, all the embarrassing ones rendered in technicolor.

That’s why, after fifty years of life, we can still manage to consistently bore our friends and family by telling the same dozen stories repetitively!

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve been publishing speculative fiction stories and novels for roughly 20 years—how has your writing changed over time? Have you gone in any directions that you wouldn’t have expected?

Elizabeth Bear: Well, I hope I’ve gotten better! It’s very weird having become somebody who has a solid long-term reputation in the field, because it still seems to me that I just got here. I kind of miss being one of the cool new kids occasionally, but we all have to edge over and make room for new voices and fresh approaches.

This isn’t specifically about me, but I’m definitely delighted by the burgeoning diversity in the field. I feel a lot of pleasure and satisfaction that something that was considered a drawback to mainstream success when I broke in is now a marketing point—queer characters, characters of color, queer writers, writers of color—so perhaps the change that’s worked on me is that I feel much more relaxed these days about continuing to write the sorts of things I’ve always written. There is a lot of solidarity in having a community, and markets like Uncanny around.

Oh, and I learned to write transitions, and less baroque sentences. 😀

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Elizabeth Bear: I have another very short story that I need to finish (of course I’m currently in Europe for Luxcon, because writing while traveling and doing appearances is so good for one’s concentration!) about soft-edge climate mitigation technology, microplastics, and murder. And I am 2/3rds done with Machine, another book in the same science fiction far-future as Ancestral Night that just came out.

Because of the vagaries of publishing, I have two books out this year. The Red-Stained Wings is the second book in an epic fantasy trilogy, and that’s out in May. So I have promo to work on for that as well. So much of writing is actually authoring, it turns out!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula finalist short story “Carnival Nine.” Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com

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