speculative prose

An Interview with S.R. Mandel

We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 18 by talking about all sorts of “magics” (bold or subtle) with our authors, and what inspired their stories.

Algérie_Bacchus_Mosaïque_romaine_CherchellLackington’s: You have mentioned that “When the Vine Came” is directly descended from various ancient Greek stories about the god Dionysus. You never use this name in the story, but the grape imagery is clear enough. What other features of Dionysus were important to you to bring into this story? Was there anything you consciously changed?

SRM: Right, this story is based on parts of the “origin story” of the god Dionysus—a deity of the classical Greek pantheon, known later as Bacchus or Liber to the Romans. Dionysus’s story is told in a number of places, including The Bacchae (or The Bacchantes), a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides, and The Metamorphoses, an endlessly fascinating collection of stories in Latin by the Roman poet Ovid. The elements of this story come from both those sources, among others.

Of course, these versions have differences. Classical mythology has a zillion different versions of almost every story—and those are only the ones that have survived to today! The origin stories of deities were constantly getting revised, or multiple deities got syncretized into one, to fit the needs of changing times, cultures and empires. (I find this a really interesting comparison to some modern-day notions of religion, insofar as many people view this as requiring the concept of a single eternal, unchanging text.)

Dionysus is a very interesting god; like the origin stories, he is polymorphous. Among the characteristics usually attributed to him are youth—he’s younger than most of the Greco-Roman pantheon, and the only one with a human mother—and the notion that he is somehow an outsider, and, to use a contemporary buzzword, a disruptor. He irrupts into the established cultural and religious order, threatening to change or overthrow the status quo. This is nuanced by the fact that he’s also viewed as a “foreign” god: he’s seen as coming from somewhere in the Middle East, North Africa, or Asia Minor—the lands that are now Turkey.

So there is a lot going on here—a lot of different kinds of symbolism, that can be interpreted in many different ways. Possibly for this reason, Euripides’ The Bacchae is frequently revisited. One important source I drew on for this story is The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, a very interesting postcolonialist adaptation of The Bacchae written by the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka in 1969.

One major change from the sources is that, as you mention, in my version, the god remains offstage. In Euripides, Dionysus is very much present, front and centre, explaining himself to the audience. To me, that seems more difficult to pull off in a contemporary context. I mean, we don’t currently live in an age where we believe that humans and gods can walk, talk, and sleep together. There’s a long tradition, in many quarters, of believing that that kind of thing used to happen—and, in some quarters, that some version of it may happen again someday—but I don’t know of anyone who thinks that it’s happening right now.

Also, in our post-Christian world, there’s the fact that the story of a young man appearing in a classical city and claiming to be divine by birth, and entitled to worship as a representative of his father—Euripides’ Dionysus story in a nutshell—is going to take on Christ-like resonance for some readers. This may be inevitable; at the same time, it is not part of the story’s original cultural context. This seemed like another reason to keep the deity offstage, and let people form their own opinions about him. I actually based the handling of this on a Ray Bradbury story, called “The Man” (it’s an interesting story, sort of buried in the middle of The Illustrated Man), which models this kind of asymptotic approach to divinity.

Finally, I think the effect of religion, belief, and charismatic leaders upon people and populations is much more interesting, and maybe ultimately more important, than the leaders themselves. This is true about politicians, but you could also say it about gods. Gods have a profound, inestimable effect on human actions and history—whether or not we ever actually see them, or can ever verify their actual existence. Is that not fascinating?

Lackington’s: Despite its origins in ancient mythology, “When the Vine Came” is set on another world in another galaxy, where space travel is common. Why did a science-fiction setting seem right for this story, and what prompted you to merge SF with ancient myth?

SRM: I don’t have an excellent answer for this. I think the simplest answer is that I loved Ray Bradbury very much when I was growing up, and, like everyone who loves Ray Bradbury and tries to write, I have written a number of stories under his influence. One of the things I love about Bradbury is that most of his “science fiction” is so cheerfully unscientific—his most memorable SF stories don’t pass muster as “hard” SF by anyone’s standards. This is especially true of the ones set on our solar system’s inner planets, which I think qualify aesthetically as more like “planetary fantasy” or “planetary romance” than science fiction. Venus is a rainy jungle! Mars is the Egypt-like tomb of an ancient civilization! But they make for wonderful metaphors, and Bradbury is fantastic at combining a sense of familiar humanity with a feeling of distance and strangeness, for that proverbial sense of wonder that many readers love and look for in SF—particularly the SF of the so-called “Golden Age.”

The Romantic poets called this sense of wonder “the sublime.” I think Bradbury’s stories, especially The Martian Chronicles, are rich with a sense of the sublime—what happens when humans encounter the infinite depths of space or history, and the infinite difference of the alien. To me, this is interesting because the sublime is also inherent in human encounters with the divine—which is at the cultural root of a great deal of mythology and narrative, including the story of Dionysus.

A lot of this story’s mixed iconography also comes from Bradbury’s aesthetic, particularly the graceful, ruined cities of The Martian Chronicles—which in turn evoke the wonder of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic poets upon encountering the ruins of the ancient civilizations of Europe and the Middle East, including ancient Greece and Rome. So, to an extent, this makes a complete circle. Intertexuality! I like that.

Lackington’s: This is a story about control. Penthe, the governor of New Thebes, worries that he’s losing control of his city, and it’s easy to see his point. The practices of the followers of the new god are strange and in some ways destructive, but the governor’s fearful response is even more violent in turn. Is there any side in this conflict that you feel more sympathetic toward?

SRM: This question is difficult. I wrote the first draft of this story several years ago. At that time, my main interest was exploring adapting Ovid’s stories into contemporary (or retro) SF settings, with the questions of plot and pacing, setting and iconography, and action versus “moral lessons” that that implies. When I took it out again recently, the world had changed. So the story’s implications had also changed. And that required revising.

In the first draft, to be honest, I had much more sympathy with Penthe. That is because, in innocent times, I think we all tend to identify with the youthful outsider—the attractive disruptor—over his counterpart. Especially if the counterpart is a civil servant who represents the status quo. A young god will always be sexier than a middle-aged civil servant. (With apologies to all the actual sexy middle-aged civil servants out there—I do know a few!) So, I feel for Penthe, because he’s always going to be seen as the bad guy and he knows it. But if you think of him as someone trying to govern a city, he actually does have a challenging job to do and he is trying to do it to the best of his ability. And he sees himself as the good guy, as trying to protect his people and the structures that keep them safe against a chaotic invader, right up until the end.

However, out in the real world, we’ve seen huge changes over the past couple of years. At the time I wrote the draft, it was possible to think of authoritarianism, fascism, and ethnic nationalism as artifacts of a benighted past that no longer had a place in the Western world. That’s no longer the case: now all these forces are very much with us again. I did not want the story to be even theoretically readable as a defence of authoritarianism.

The truth is that I don’t really support either of these models of authority. Penthe is not a democrat; he’s doing his best to be a more or less benign dictator, but he doesn’t have to answer to anyone and there are no checks on his power. But I don’t, personally, want to live in an anarchic or pure libertarian state either. This story doesn’t explore what would actually happen to New Thebes’ people after the structures collapse, what the outcomes would be for the weak as well as the strong. But the real world has numerous examples of collapses like this, and, as I see it, the outcomes don’t bring us any closer to justice or equality of opportunity, which I think should be goals of civilization. They just create conditions for another form of tyranny by the powerful over the defenceless.

(I should note that, in the original sources, Pentheus is depicted differently: he’s more autocratic, and his big mistake is in failing to recognize Dionysus’s true divinity out of an excess of personal pride. I don’t feel like this kind of “moral” makes so much sense, anymore, in a world in which we no longer do venerate Dionysus.

(And, honestly, as I’ve said, I do have some sympathy for Pentheus’s position. Imagine you’re trying to run a city in which people are constantly, just constantly, turning up and announcing that they’re a son of Zeus and the newest member of the pantheon, and you have to decide which are actual demi-gods—with the power to destroy you—and which are just random people with delusions of grandeur. How stressful would this job be?)

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?

SRM: I find this question really interesting. Part of that, I guess, depends on what we mean by “unconventional.” There are whole essays to be written on the implications and contradictions of that word, “convention.” We get it originally from the Latin “convenire,” which means “to come together,” and later “to fit together or assemble.” The word is hugely important for us in the speculative fiction community—a convention is also where we, fans and readers and writers, assemble—but the implications are different for fiction. And that root also gives us a range of other words, from “convenient” to “covenant.”

I feel as if many things about this story are conventional, in the sense that they have been brought together from other sources. The golden spires, the moons and birds and helmeted policemen—this is slightly pulpy, retro imagery from the planetary-fantasy days. As for the plot, if “conventional” means “done before,” then this couldn’t be more conventional—it’s literally copied from Ovid and Euripides.

But I think this question is more about “what readers expect right now.” And…I’m honestly not sure how to phrase this without sounding, maybe, terribly privileged, because I realize not everyone has the opportunity or the time to read all the stories we wish we could. But it’s one reason why, I think, both in public education and in general, it’s really important for us to explore stories that come from other places and times. One thing I love, and that also awes and confuses me, about classical Greek mythology and drama is that the stories usually don’t work the way we expect them to. Insofar as they have morals, they’re not the same kind of morals as modern Western post-Christian stories have.

The lesson taught by Euripides’ Bacchae made sense in its time, but is kind of bizarre to modern readers. “Don’t be too prideful” may still make sense to us, but “Don’t take too long bowing your head to the pagan god once he’s showed you good evidence he’s Zeus’s son” is…not a particularly modern kind of moral.

And most of the tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses don’t really have any “moral” at all. The gods did this, and this, and that, and then turned her into a bird or he became a flower, the end. If there’s any lesson at all, it’s that resisting the will of the gods will always end badly for humans, whether they want you to praise them or they want to have sex with you. (And even if you agree to the sex, it’s still going to end badly for you, because their wives will come after you, since they can’t punish the gods themselves.) These gods can be remarkably petty, even by Abrahamic standards, and “you need to learn to submit to their abuses of power” may seem like a confusing moral lesson. These people—the Greeks, I mean, and later the Romans—were my cultural forebears in some ways, but in many other ways they are completely baffling to me!

I think that if there’s a lesson here, it’s that one’s current understanding of how morals work—and how people work, and how stories work—is not universal. It’s changed before, and it will change again. And it’s different right now, today, in other countries and among other people. The more we can be aware of that, the more we can be aware of how diverse human thought and culture are. Honestly, particularly for readers and writers of speculative fiction, I can’t think of many things that are more valuable than that.


S.R. Mandel is from San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, in that order. She has worked in northern France, central Japan, and the Middle East, and her writing has appeared in Apex, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, The Massachusetts Review, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other venues. She is very interested in things that manage to be one thing and also another thing at the same time. Find her online at @susannah_speaks.




This entry was posted on December 18, 2018 by in Interview.
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