The author of the novel Dragon Wing, Lettie Prell’s short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Starship Sofa, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Analog, among others. Her fiction often explores the blurred edges where humanity and technology combine into something new and ideas of downloaded human consciousness and the singularity.
“The Open-Hearted” is my favorite kind of story, as in it’s not exactly about what it’s about. What I mean by that is there’s the story as it’s presented, what it’s about, its subject matter. And then there is the next layer, usually something that’s never explicitly mentioned in the story itself. This is a story about trends, and the speed at which they grow from underground fad to nationally mainstream style choice, how they go from “that’s weird!” to “everyone is getting one, when are you getting yours?”. I couldn’t help but think of trending hashtags on twitter, or memes that gain popularity, or just about anything that goes from throw-away line to captioned and re-captioned photo, to the point where most people have no idea where it started or what it’s originally meaning was.
What isn’t explicitly mentioned in “The Open-Hearted,” and what really spoke to me through the brand names and body modifications and organic smoothies was that of control and choice. The main character, Palmer, needs this specific trend to realize that all this time, he’s been choosing. If you choose a trend because you like it or simply because you’d like to try it, you’ve chosen it for yourself. Doesn’t matter that advertising has pushed that choice towards you, you’ve still made that choice of your own volition. But when something becomes so entrenched, and so mainstream, are you following that trend because you’re interested in following it? Or are you following it because you feel you have to? Adding some more weight to the decision is that the trend outlined in “The Open-Hearted” is a non-reversible body modification that has touted positive side effects such as additional sensory perception and eco-consciousness. So yeah, this body modification sounds like a great thing! But what if you don’t want it?
I’m one of those people who finds fashion trends fascinating, even though I make my own personal fashion decisions based on what doesn’t itch. I love seeing cool piercings and cool tattoos on people, yet I have no plans to get more holes in my ears or ink my own skin. Unlike Palmer, I don’t practice the trends I enjoy watching. He and I have very different personalities. Once you’ve read the story, I want you to put yourself in Palmer’s shoes, either with his personality or your own. Would you make the same decision he made at the end of the story?
Apex Magazine: Much of your science fiction explores the merging of humans and technology. But “The Open-Hearted” explores the merging of humans and a plant-like structure. Through a body modification technique, people are getting “stomas,” which are new orifices of a sort. What inspired you to go with botany instead of technology? Why stomata?
Lettie Prell: First we need to understand I can only comment on a story in retrospect. I used to be a serious amateur photographer, and maybe because of this, my inspirations come in the form of a strong central image. In this case, I saw a meditating woman with breathing stomata in the palms of her hands. I had to write about it.
So in retrospect, this story might be about the possibility of a more organic singularity than the usual scenario. By that I mean maybe we don’t have to bring about an exceptional achievement like downloading our minds into computers, or inventing an artificial intelligence with a soul, in order to cross the threshold that Vernor Vinge called the singularity back in the 1990s. Vinge himself allowed that the singularity might be brought about by an advancement in biological science, although he was thinking more in terms of improvements in human intellect. I ended up exploring the idea that the singularity might be transmitted as a meme in the latest fad.
AM: Palmer is a trend spotter. He identifies the next big thing, and presents it to investors. They’ll leap on the fad, and see who can make the most money off of it the fastest. Everything about Palmer’s life is trendy — what he wears, what he eats and drinks, where he lives. He drank the Kool-Aid of his own self-created cult of personality. But this new trend of irreversible body modification makes him nervous. Why is he okay with all the other trends in his life, but not this one?
LP: With every other fad, Palmer has been in control. This is the fad that is creating almost a new species of human, and Palmer sees that happening, and finds it disturbing, because of his part in helping bring it about.
AM: As the story progresses, people learn more about their stomas, and what the stomas can do. If given the opportunity, would you get one a stoma (or four)? Why/why not?
LP: In another interview, I was quoted as saying I’d like to upload my consciousness into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. So sure, getting seven stomata are a snap compared to that. Seriously, what I’ve understood from reading about quantum reality is our five senses are limiting our view of the world. I’m drawn to science fiction because I want to explore what’s beyond.
AM: What was the most challenging part of writing “The Open-Hearted”?
LP: As with any short story, my challenge is to stick with the central image and not be lured astray. An earlier version of this story didn’t work. I fixed it by chopping out the bits that weren’t serving the main plot. When I did, I was able to see the story more deeply, and write to that great depth, which improved it.
AM: Where do your story ideas come from? What is your writing process?
LP: As I noted at the beginning of our conversation, I typically see an image in my mind, which is usually —but not always — the climactic image. Obsession sparks the creative thrust, and I’m off. Sometimes I write the draft very quickly in a matter of a weekend. Other times it takes months, during which I despair in my lack of progress. I’ve decided the creative process is outside the space-time continuum. It doesn’t care how long I take.
AM: You’ve attended WisCon for many years, and also became a regular at ICON, Iowa’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. What’s your favorite part of attending events like WisCon and ICON?
LP: Discussing science topics and their implications for the future, whether the actual future or some speculative version of it. I enjoy the people. I love being around other writers because of the camaraderie. I also enjoy the fans, because so many of them are insanely intelligent, and have intriguing viewpoints to share.
AM: Your profession has you directing research at the Iowa Department of Corrections. How might crime, punishment, and all the involved psychology integrate with a science fictional story?
LP: As a matter of fact, I’m just now starting to bring the justice system into my science fiction. I can’t discuss any of it, of course, but those stories will start to appear.
AM: Who are some of your favorite writers? Are there any works in particular that inspired you to start writing?
LP: I’m enjoying reading the new work out there, although I’m behind. I enjoyed Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but I don’t have time to get into the rest of that series—one of the banes of being a writer. I just finished Speak by Louisa Hall, which I’d heartily recommend to Apex readers.
I have a lot of favorites from the past, including Nancy Kress, China Miéville, William Gibson, Ted Chiang, Ursula LeGuin, and many others. However, as far as what inspired me to start writing science fiction, it wasn’t any one writer. No, it was that great unknowable creative force that sneaked up behind this criminal justice statistician one day, took command of her vocal cords, and made her tell one of her closest friends that she’d been thinking of writing science fiction.
Her friend smiled non-judgmentally and said, “That sounds like a great idea.”
AM: Thanks Lettie!