Interview: Monica Valentinelli

Monica Valentinelli writes stories, games, essays, and comics for her original works and media/tie-in properties. She is known for creating the Make Art Not War Challenge and for her publications set in Whedon’s Firefly universe. Valentinelli previously appeared in Uncanny with “We Have Always Been Here, Motherfucker,” a powerful essay which touches on some of the same themes as her Uncanny fiction debut, “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I Am Beautiful.”

Uncanny Magazine: Model XR389F is fighting to stay alive, and Brandt’s main concern is for his research funding. For me, this story called to mind the famous Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Was that part of the inspiration for this story?

Monica Valentinelli: I didn’t start with that (Atwood’s quote) assumption in mind; this truth emerged as I wrote and revised the story. I was more focused on how the cyborg would win a seemingly unwinnable fight. I removed the character’s emotions, because women often lose arguments when we get upset. (We’re told we’re “hormonal”). I added a learning mechanism, because we make decisions based on the information we have access to. Initially, the character wasn’t human at all, but the story didn’t work as I intended it to. So, I added back in some humanity to highlight a more realistic thought process, forge a better connection to the reader, and show how Brandt stereotypes the models according to his personal race-and-gender biases. And by introducing a clear power differential between how a human life is valued more than a cyborg’s, I could further underline the story’s theme in a meaningful, impactful way without waxing philosophically.

Uncanny Magazine: In both the title of the story and at the end, Model XR389F says “I am beautiful.” Her introduction to the concept of beauty was through Hal’s harassment, but she still chooses to describe herself that way. Is she trying to reclaim the term? What do you hope the reader will take away from this ending?

Monica Valentinelli: As we all know, simple words can have complex meanings. “Beautiful” is one of them, because it’s a two-dimensional word describing a physical, often gendered, appearance or attribute. It’s not typically used as a term to describe oneself, however, or one’s intrinsic value. It’s a judgment someone else makes about us. When it’s used, it can carry other positive, gendered attributes like goodness, kindness, gentleness; when it’s not, our value in the eyes of others (and sometimes to ourselves, too) diminishes both externally and internally. After all, we use the same word to describe people and objects; in both instances “beautiful” means the same thing. So, when the cyborg uses the word “beautiful,” it is first a behavior she’s mimicking. But, since men aren’t called beautiful, Brandt assumes she’s faulty. Following this, Model XR389F describes herself. She’s saying: “I have value, because I say I do.” And, by having value, she finds she is worthy. She’s telling herself she not only wants to live, but her life has meaning.

In terms of the reader? Oh, that’s always a difficult question, but I’ll do my best to answer. My hope for the reader is simply this: if you relate to Model XR389F in any way, I hope you find your own rallying cry, for you are worthy.

Uncanny Magazine: You often write dark stories and horror, and this story definitely has some dark notes. What draws you to darker tales?

Monica Valentinelli: The old adage “write what you know” comes to mind. Only in my case, it’s “write my truth.” I am no stranger to darkness, and I am keenly interested in exploring characters who seek light—as I do. Horror, whether you regard it as a mood, genre, or both, possesses a spectrum of emotions and experiences; sometimes, for example, everyday objects and situations put people in terrifying situations. Since I regard this as “truth,” I’m more concerned with how different characters find their way out of the labyrinth they’re trapped in, as opposed to fixating on which monster will attack them next.

Uncanny Magazine: When I’m writing, I often hide little Easter eggs in my stories—is this something you like to do, and are there any hidden here? Is there any particular significance to the numbers in the android model designations, for instance?

Monica Valentinelli: I love Easter eggs! I try to reward savvy readers whenever I can, whether that’s allegorically or specifically. In this case, I intentionally did not choose model numbers that had meaning, because Brandt treats the cyborgs as his personal lab rats. Thus, the human names are the Easter eggs in this instance.

Brandt refers to the male cyborg as “Hal” after Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a longer work, I would have explored Hal’s perspective to reveal that Brandt increasingly forms a buddy attachment to Hal, and considers him to be a reliable lab partner. Hal, like Model XR389F, is neither “good” nor “evil,” however, but he concludes that he is safe provided he follows Brandt’s orders. So, like Model XR389F, he internalizes that doing what Brandt wants benefits him, but because his assigned gender is male, the scientist treats him differently.

The engineer calls Model XR389F “Alice” which has a dual meaning and further reveals his personal biases. This refers to instances when white women are referred to as little girls, a la Alice in Wonderland; this description is often used as a tactic to discredit and diffuse a woman’s credibility. By reducing her to an immature child whose thoughts are fancible notions, any argument she makes cannot, therefore, be taken seriously. But, the name also refers to Alice from the first Resident Evil movie; to simplify the film’s plot, Alice is a corporate security guard who fights for her survival. I couldn’t think of a more fitting name for Model XR389F to depict who she was in Brandt’s eyes and show how wrong he was.

And Brandt? I chose his name because it was vanilla-flavored, and it could refer to a lot of different men who share his biases and attitudes. In my head, Brandt is played by Sam Rockwell—which is not a reflection on him or the characters he plays. Rather, I hear dialogue as I write it, and I think his voice would be perfect for the character. If you haven’t seen Moon (2009), by the way, I highly recommend it.

Uncanny Magazine: You do a lot of different types of writing: fiction and nonfiction, tie-ins, comics, games. Do you find that themes or ideas bleed from one project into another, or are you able to keep things clearly separated?

Monica Valentinelli: I’ve spent a lot of time emotionally and mentally compartmentalizing what I’m working on for various reasons ranging from the veneer of professionalism to insulating myself from reviews or comments for things I can’t control. That said, some projects require more worldbuilding effort than others, and I do find certain writing, editing, and development skills transfer between mediums. In general, though, I treat each manuscript as its own entity to avoid shortcuts and ensure the projects are unique in their own right. So, for me I don’t have any issues transferring between mediums or projects.

These past few months I’ve been fairly vigilant, more than usual, to establish fancy processes and protocols that’ll help me incorporate more of my own work while (hopefully) proceeding smartly to my next destination—or five!

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Monica Valentinelli: Hah, hah! The ultimate question. (Yes, that was a Douglas Adams reference.) I’m currently positioned in the umbra of a long shadow. Loosely translated, that is what I refer to as the nature of the beast—yet another pitch phase. This particular moment in my career is filled with far more pitches than contracts, and I could emerge into sunlight with a slew of “Yes’s” or retreat back into the antumbra with a pile of “No’s.” Either way, there’s only one thing I (or any other writer, for that matter) can do: keep writing. Hope for the best, of course, but just keep writing.

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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