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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
As you may have already discovered, Seth Dickinson’s “Economies of Force” is not an easy story to read. It does start out a little humorous, but then takes a dark turn towards an uneasy yet mesmerizing nihilism. The defense humanity comes up with to protect ourselves from the alien threat could be more dangerous to our way of thinking than the threat itself. How do we protect ourselves when we don’t know if or when we’ve been compromised? Can we trust technology to make decisions that are free of our morality? Much in “Economies of Force” has been left open to the reader’s interpretation, and I encourage you to discuss this story with other readers, to see how others interpreted the Loom, and the defensive drones’ communication.
Dickinson is no stranger to tackling large questions, and he encourages young writers to do much the same at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, where he is an instructor. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, and Strange Horizons, and his first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, is forthcoming from Tor Books in 2015.
Questions about “Economies of Force”
APEX MAGAZINE: “Economies of Force” takes place in the far future, when humanity has colonized other worlds and come into contact with an alien technology. The story touches on the themes of the scale of ideas and losing sight of the forest for the trees. Can you tell us about what inspired this story?
SETH DICKINSON: Yes! My inspiration for stories is kind of bicameral. I get excited about the prose and style techniques I want to try, and about the ideas and emotions I want to tackle. I need both before I can execute the piece.
Stylistically, I wanted to try to strip down some of my techniques and write something simple. That meant using sketched characters without a lot of deep interior life, fairly direct sentence structure, and plain imagery. I screwed that up a bit. I’ll be interested to see what readers think of the story on a stylistic level — I wrote it back in 2011, so it’s older than almost everything else I’ve sold!
As for the ideas and feelings… on one level, this story is much more alienating and detached than a lot of my other short fiction. But it’s really personal to me. I knew I wanted to sit down and write a story with an ambiguous ending that rewarded a little thought and imagination. I wanted to write about things it’s hard to think about, because they don’t fit neatly inside your skull.
I struggle with what you aptly call the problem of being a tree in a big forest — when you’re stuck inside your own skull, watching the world through a filter of heuristics, trying to piece together an effective model of enormous systems using your flimsy allocation of nerve–meat, how do you make good decisions? Do we at some point need to surrender and admit that we’re just fleshy widgets in a system too big for us to grasp?
I wanted to evoke the panic and awe of feeling too small. I think there’s something incredible about it. I mean, think about the economy! Think about the power it has. The computer networks and sheafs of legislation devoted to defining and exploiting its rules. We think of it as something external, like the weather — but it’s parasitic. It lives in our behavior. Our actions and decisions are the basic computations that underpin its thoughts. The economy isn’t self–aware or teleological, of course… but I don’t think most of the important systems in the universe are.
And I wanted to get at the uneasy beauty of that vastness, too. Apona finds the nihilism of the drones compelling and beautiful. She admires them as avatars of a primal truth: the supremacy of power. Apona doesn’t believe in a world that cares about right or wrong — just the ability to dictate the shape of what comes next. (She shares that with the protagonist of ‘Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis’.) She admires the Loom and the drones, and I think she believes they’re the ultimate destiny of thought: minds completely focused on outsmarting and destroying other minds, simply for the sake of continued existence.
I’m still grappling about how to talk about this effectively in fiction, because it’s something very visceral for me. I was fascinated by military technology as a child, but it always disappointed me to learn that a given warship or aircraft was made and used by people in the service of small human disputes. I think I wanted the amoral grace of a tiger or a shark, something deadly and purposeful and separate from human concerns.
I think that’s an incredibly dangerous tendency, to find beauty in these awful things. Violence and organized warfare are abhorrent and I wish we could be without them. But I still find the aesthetic of weapons hypnotic, as Apona does. It’s a kind of magical thinking: look at that machine, so sleek, so charged with purpose. It can’t just be the product of a comically inefficient system of contractors competing for military money. It can’t just be an ineffective instrument of a clumsy foreign policy. It has to mean something. We romanticize weapons, but as our weapons grow more inhuman and sophisticated — compare today’s combat aircraft to the 1940s, or even the archetype of today’s faceless commando to the citizen–soldier of ages past — the act becomes more and more uneasy.
To wrap it up: evolution offers us no guarantee that consciousness or compassion or anything we value as intrinsically human will actually prove vital in the long run. Sometimes I look up at the night sky (as one does) and I imagine that it’s just a playground for mindless self–replicating machines, a ruthless and spectacularly intelligent ecosystem without any resources to spare for self–awareness or creation or anything but the fight. Sometimes I think that’s the worst possible outcome. Sometimes I’m perversely convinced it’s the best. I don’t think anything in that ecosystem could meaningfully be said to suffer.
AM: One of my favorite scenes in the story is right at the beginning, when young Rade is trying to use classroom vocabulary words in conversation. It made me laugh because I’m pretty sure I did the same thing with big vocabulary words when I was a kid. What’s your favorite scene in the story?
SD: Ooh, that’s tricky. I’d normally reach for a warm moment between the characters, but it’s such a cold, slippery story.
I think I’d point to the scene where Apona explains why she takes the photos, and calls herself disgusting. Everyone in the story is fighting against the same problem: the systems they live in are meaningless, self–perpetuating, kind of empty at the center. When Apona confronts that, I think it moves the story into its very final stage, where the characters (and, I hope, the reader) start to assemble the pieces and build a suspicion of what’s really happening to them.
AM: Drones are brought in to protect the populace from the dreaded Loom. We hear the voices of the drones in different sections of the story, and their words are chaotic and random, yet I found the rhythm of their speech to be utterly mesmerizing. How did you design their language, and do their phrases actually mean anything concrete?
SD: I’m so glad that worked for you! It is supposed to be mesmerizing, absolutely, but it’s also meaningful. All the drone chatter conveys tactical information that I hope an interested reader could decode. The last interruption in particular is, I hope, useful to building a reading of exactly how the Loom/drone conflict will resolve.
I think it’d kill the effect to lay out a dictionary or translation explicitly, but I will say that the volucrine elements oft mentioned are the individual drone platforms, whereas ‘orthosis’ is the emergent intelligence that provides supervision and high–level coordination. Their chatter provides insight into their thoughts as they try to find the best way to model, predict, identify, and extinguish the Loom.
I’ve been fascinated with the aesthetic of tactical brevity code since I played Half–Life 2. I think the effect is probably familiar to anyone who’s watched a cop show, or seen a documentary on the modern military. You don’t need to understand the exact intent of the individual words to get at the meaning: the choice of code phrases, their arrangement and pacing, delivers information and texture. One of my favorite passages is in Greg Bear’s Eon, as the characters listen to World War III break out on the Earth below — you can find it on Google Books if you search for the phrase ‘One K that is Kill Seven.’ Almost every word in the passage is nonsense, but taken in context, they deliver a really interesting emotional effect. You get to see a very complex military system try to save itself, and (inevitably) fail; at the very end the human mind behind it emerges for one sad farewell.
AM: The Loom spreads by proximity. It’s not an infection, although the people who are exposed to it can’t help but continue spreading it. How did you come up with the idea for the Loom, and why did you call it “Loom”?
SD: I don’t want to pin the origin of the name down definitively, but I think there are a couple obvious readings that offer themselves. It weaves everything into itself, of course, and its presence is almost purely anticipatory: you don’t know when it’s among you, you don’t seem to know when you’re a part of it.
The inspiration for the Loom comes from cancer, narrowly, and more broadly from life. The first self–replicating molecules were able to reach out into the environment and recruit matter to make more of themselves. Eventually, life gained the ability to change its environment to make that process even easier.
Today, we live with systems that are very intentionally purposeless. Our favorite mode of distributing resources, capitalism, is built on the idea that if everyone works to maximize their own local welfare, the welfare of the whole will benefit. We’re fascinated by genetic algorithms and neural nets that solve problems without the need for guided, teleological design. We seem intent on designing engines that can run in perpetuity without reference to anything but themselves.
I think one easy guess as to the nature of the Loom is that it’s an idea that’s figured out how to alter the environment very well to help more people think about it.
AM: Apona’s photography captures the horrific violence their society is willing to suffer in order to save itself. Did you have certain photos or events from history in mind when you wrote those scenes?
SD: I did. But I’m not sure how comfortable I feel actually pointing to them! Drones in our world today are used in the context of a very specific system of violence, whereas drones in this story don’t kill real people in real places in the service of a real agenda. That disconnect is purposeful — I wanted to separate the story a little from the modern context, because it’s more a philosophical allegory than a political one — but it’s also kind of cowardly. I think there are many really fascinating things written about drones in the real world, how we think and talk about them, what they mean symbolically.
I want to leave it up to the reader to connect images and ideas in this story to the real world. Or to criticize me for failing to make those connections!
General questions on writing
AM: Congratulations on the sale of your novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, to Tor Books! What can you tell us about this new novel?
SD: I think the tagline my agent favors is Game of Thrones meets Guns, Germs, and Steel. This was the pitch I used to sell it, for those curious about the process:
Baru Cormorant will pay any price to liberate her world — even if it makes her a monster.
When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home and murders one of her fathers, Baru makes a vow: I will never be powerless again. She’ll swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.
Suspicious of her loyalty, the Masquerade exiles her to an accountant’s post in distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of informants and seditious dukes. Targeted for death by the uncomfortably intriguing rebel duchess Tain Hu, Baru fears a more intimate disaster — if her colleagues discover her homosexuality, she’ll be jailed and mutilated.
But Baru is a savant in games of power, ruthless enough to make herself sick. Armed with ink, lies, and one dubiously loyal secretary, she arranges a sweeping power play — a win–or–die double–cross gambit with empire as the prize. Survive it, and she’ll save her home…but the cost will be appalling. Her dream of liberation might make her a tyrant. And if she’s so very clever — why was she fool enough to fall in love?
AM: You’re an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, at which teenagers spend ten days working with and learning from professional authors. What’s the biggest difference (if there is any!) in working with teens, as opposed to doing writing workshops and critiques with adults?
SD: I’m young still, so I actually haven’t taught any workshops to adults! I wish I could give a more interesting answer. Our students are incredibly engaged and talented, and they’re also very, very progressive — mostly women, often queer, always thoughtful and critical. It gives me a lot of hope that literature will continue to broaden and more accurately reflect the real range of human experience.
AM: You’ve been selling short stories for a number of years now, to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld, and now Apex Magazine. About how long does it take you to complete a short story?
SD: I started selling stories in 2012, so we’re most of the way through my third year. Once I have the idea for a story, I need to finish it within a couple days. If it hasn’t happened by then, I’ve learned, it’s probably not going to work out. I’m a very prose–level writer: I can’t outline big structural units and skip around. I have to start at or near the beginning and work forward sentence by sentence, getting it all right on the first go.
AM: Who are some of your favorite authors? Do you feel any authors or works in particular influenced and shaped your writing style?
SD: Yes! I’ve cribbed shamefully from Kij Johnson, Catherynne Valente, Iain Banks, Yoon Ha Lee, Cormac McCarthy, Alastair Reynolds, Ellen Kushner, Ursula LeGuin, and CJ Cherryh. I’m sure I need to name more but I have to stop somewhere.
I’ve adored but not cribbed nearly enough from Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Kameron Hurley, and many more I’m sure I’m forgetting. One of my favorite authors who broke in at the same time as me is the stellar Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who deserves so many readers.
AM: Thanks so much, Seth, and again, congratulations on The Traitor Baru Cormorant!