speculative prose

An Interview with Arkady Martine

We’re celebrating the launch of our Gothics issue by finding out what it is about the Gothic that appeals to our authors, and what inspired their Issue 17 stories.

Northcote, James, 1746-1831; Vulture and SnakeLackington’s: Many Gothic stories are set in the past, but “Nothing Must Be Wasted” is set in the far future. Was there something about the idea of worldships that seemed obviously Gothic to you? Or did the connection only emerge as you started thinking about the realities of the setting?

AM: It was either Sarah Monette or Elizabeth Bear who said to me that a Gothic is a romance between a girl and an evil house. By that definition, “Nothing Must Be Wasted” is entirely a Gothic—Yagmur and the worldship are clearly a girl and an evil (or at least rotten and corrupt) house engaged in a sort of courtship. A courtship consummated, at the end, by an act of ritual cannibalism.

Which is also rather Gothic: the body, and the things consumed by the body, and the body which is consumed. Generation ships in general to me feel very much to be a literary device about embodiment, decay, and growth: a generation ship is a habitat and a home, and it must self-sustain, and reproduce (it is a generation ship after all, a ship that carries generations and also is generative)—and yet most of our generation ship fiction is in fact about decay, or the corruption of that home/body over time. A distortion of the idea of the planet as house. Much as a Gothic considers the corruption of the house as generational place—all of these falling-down ruins, these wildernesses, that still compel the people within them to cling to them in desperation.

I recently read Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth, which is a Gothic set in early-1990s Australia, on a sheep-grazing station crowned with a glorious old manse gone to rot. There is a poison act at the heart of that rot, of course, an initial sin that echoes through time and links members of a family together despite their best efforts. And the book is also deeply and obsessively concerned with the place where this rot occurs: the land and the house, and the people who cannot get away from the land and the house and the wanting of them. Of course, because it’s a good book, that land and that house and that wanting are tied closely up with the genocide and removal of the Aboriginal Peoples who had possessed that land previously. But I’d claim that possession of and possession by place is central to the romance of the Gothic, and in this sense the rotting generation ship, reclaimed, is fundamentally Gothic.

Lackington’s: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is arguably both the very first science fiction novel and also one of the most famous Gothic stories. What attracted you to that genre combination when writing “Nothing Must Be Wasted”? Did you have other examples of Gothic science fiction in mind that you looked to for inspiration?

AM: I found the vultures first; sky-burial, and the ecosystem of vultures consuming the dead, and the difficulties that people in the Himalayas have now in doing sky-burial, because so few vultures manage to hatch. Their shells are too thin; pesticides in the watershed. So the vultures were the impetus, and the idea of closed ecosystems that ate themselves.

I write science fiction except when I’m trying very hard not to. It’s the mode I find easiest, no matter what else I’m playing with. But in the case of “Nothing Must Be Wasted,” I had a very particular inspiration: the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy by Elizabeth Bear, which is a proper generation ship Gothic, with corruption and loss and multiple generations of people trying to salvage what might be left of their humanity, if such a thing is possible. Bear also had an excellent fallen angel/AI, which I’ve missed out on getting to play with in this story. But those books gave me the seed of “Nothing Must Be Wasted.” So did, in a peculiar way, an early childhood encounter with Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Saga, which is not a generation-ship book at all, but a really very odd exploration of multi-generational timeskipping, told through one confusing novel and a bunch of rather good short stories. I think. I haven’t reread it. I was thirteen when I read it the first time. The story that matters in there is “And What Will We Do Tomorrow,” in which the empress of an entire galactic empire gets to spend one and only one day awake every five years—the story shows her one day awake, how she talks to all of her ministers, all of whom lie to her, except for one, who is planning to break the whole empire. Timeskip is a kind of generation-ship-like corruption; it holds one person steady and shifts the world around them.

This happens all the time in Gothics. One person—or one family—holds very still, emotionally and in terms of their beliefs and ties and obsessions and link-to-place. And the world shifts around them, dies and cracks and comes open, and either they rot with it or they are released eventually.

Lackington’s: The language in “Nothing Must Be Wasted” is at times formal and dense: more like what we would associate with older styles of written English. Why did you select this kind of writing style for a story set in the far future?

AM: The linguistic structure of “Nothing Must Be Wasted” is in fact even more formal than it looks at first glance—watch for the order in which the ghost-companions speak. It is always the same order.

Also I was trying to tell a story that felt old, but also a story that felt like an origin story; the kind of story that might be the foundation for a future Gothic, that would be the underlying poison act that shaped a long generation of people tied to this ship/place. A memory. And thus I thought about the structure of fairytale, of ghosts and saying things three times, ritual magic.

This kind of storytelling will happen in any future we get to; I don’t find it foreign at all to the milieu of science fiction.

Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?

I like juxtapositions very much. The other story which I’ve had in Lackington’s was also a SFnal take on a mode of storytelling we don’t often think of as being part of science fiction: the medieval saint’s life. I find that older or unexpected story frames take on fascinating new angles when they are placed in the context of science fiction’s concerns with modelling otherwise ways of living—of speculating on futures.

Also I just like it. The slight uncomfortable frisson of the Gothic manse as a worldship; of the Gnostic archons as technocratic spaceship-building magnates. (And what is Elon Musk but an archon, anyway?)

I think there’s real value to narrative surprise, to experimentation which is old forms in new places, or vice versa. New forms in old places gives you something like Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, where the global financial industry is in fact made of necromancers. Or necromancers are made of the global financial industry, it’s a bit half-a-dozen-of-one, six-of-the-other. My own work pulls from medieval history, and historical story modes, more often than not—especially when I am working in far-future settings.


Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and an apprentice city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, Vivian Shaw. Her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, comes out from Tor Books and TorUK in March 2019.



This entry was posted on May 8, 2018 by in Interview.
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