John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Tor.com among other venues. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. “Probabilitea” is his third story to appear in Uncanny.
Uncanny Magazine: This is a coming of age story about taking action and accepting responsibility, about small changes that cascade into larger ones, about family and politics and the Brownian motion of dust motes and molecules of tea. What was your inspiration for this story, and how did it all come together?
John Chu: The original inspiration was that I wanted to write about that moment when the child is no longer a child and their relationship with their parents has to change. Everything in this story is intended to heighten this. So, while practically every first-generation Chinese immigrant father is convinced he know best for his child, because of this story’s speculative element, Katie’s father almost certainly does know best for her. That means, though, he also knows there is a shelf life to him simply telling her what to do.
Likewise, to heighten that moment, Katie’s decision is one that would be extremely simple for her if there were no parents involved. Ultimately, it’s one where she has to risk her father’s disapproval and not one where she can simply do what her parents want. (Also, the last couple of years have felt like centuries and I can’t say that hasn’t affected my writing.)
Uncanny Magazine: A key scene in this story is the one in which Katie and Jackson are at the train station with a group of people, waiting for one of them to take action. The group was hand-picked to be present at that moment—can you talk a little about what characteristics you gave the people on the platform and why?
John Chu: Jackson picked the people but we’re in Katie’s point-of-view and he never actually tells her what he was selecting for. Between that and the fact that she’s being stretched to the current edge of her capabilities means that she doesn’t really see anything special, different, or unusual about the people waiting for the train. That’s intentional. The language there gets pointedly non-specific with respect to, for example, gender. The folks waiting basically look like the people I see on the platform while I’m waiting for the T. There is a mix of ages and races and attitudes.
You don’t need to be special, different, or unusual to take action (although, if you are, that’s awesome). It’s not as though Jackson has found The Chosen One. Anybody on that platform is someone who could have done something.
Uncanny Magazine: I loved the description of the meal Katie’s father cooked—both the description of the food itself, and the associations that Katie has with the food. Earlier this year your Tor.com story “Beyond the El” was focused even more strongly on food. What makes food an appealing story element for you? Do you like to cook?
John Chu: In a short story, where you don’t have many words to play with, food is a quick way to get into memory and culture. I can dive right into the nature of the bond between people.
I love to cook! I never have enough time to do anything really ambitious, though.
Uncanny Magazine: At the end of the story, Katie chooses to continue manipulating probabilities. If you had her abilities would you use them?
John Chu: Yes, if I were in literally the exact situation she’s in. That is, I’m so absurdly well trained that, at least within the limits of what I’m currently capable of, I basically have absolute control of my abilities. (No accidental mahjong hand stacking!) I have a demanding but ultimately loving father who is willing to let me make my own mistakes but oversees and evaluates what I do. There are people (albeit extremely powerful and slightly scary people) who tell me the likely ramifications of my manipulations. With all of that and an ethos that one doesn’t interfere with the lives of others unless one has a good reason in place, sure.
Actually, that makes this story sound like the set up for a ‘90s-era spec fic TV show. She’s a harried graduate student with the ability to alter chance. He’s a big, affable goof with the literal power of life and death. (He’s also supposed to be reading Political Science but that didn’t make it into the story.) Together, they repair the machinery of civilization!
Uncanny Magazine: I really liked Katie’s relationship with her father—he is demanding, but also very supportive. Family relationships are a recurring theme within your work; within this theme do you find there are things that you return to repeatedly? Things that have shifted over time?
John Chu: I’ve joked many times that, if I ever publish a short story collection, it should be titled Unreasonable Parental Expectations and Other Structural Oppressions. (Note: This is why people should not let me title things.) I hope that, over time, I’m writing more nuanced relationships, that I’m exploring different corners and exploring the notion of family in fresh and interesting ways.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
John Chu: I’m always writing one thing or another. Nothing that I can announce yet, though.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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