Today I talk to debut novelist Madeline Ashby about robots, Japanese anime, cyborg theory, writing and the distant dream of sleep…
Let’s start with: Who is Madeline Ashby?
I’m a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. I’m an immigrant to Toronto. I was born in Los Angeles, lived most of my life in Seattle, and found my way here. I have two Master’s degrees. The first one was about Japanese animation and cyborg theory. The second was about the future of border security. Before I wrote stories, I recited them aloud by myself in my room. It’s surprising this didn’t result in a psych evaluation.
Wait, back up a second: Japanese Animation & Cyborg Theory? You can’t drop that without telling us a little bit more…
If you’re really that curious, you can read a chapter of that thesis here. It’s really the best part of the thesis, and it brings up a lot of my favourite anime titles. Basically, I gave a paper on Stand Alone Complex at a conference at York University on animation, comics, and gaming, and Wendy Wong told me I should apply to the Interdisciplinary Studies program. It would let me get a M.A. while studying what I wanted. So I applied, and I got in. I focused on anime, cyborg theory, and fan studies, with great mentoring from Jennifer Brayton. Unexpectedly, having an understanding of Asian studies, fan communities, and media studies was very helpful when I decided to study strategic foresight an innovation at OCAD University. I was able to bring a lot of that knowledge to my student work with the Toronto International Film Festival and the Interactive division of Corus Entertainment. So, in the end, despite my two post-grad degrees being pretty different on paper, they dovetail neatly for my career.
That sounds a lot more interesting than my own degrees…
Anyway, on to your debut novel, vN, which will be published in July by Angry Robot Books. How would you introduce it to a new reader? Is it part of a series?
vN is the first of a series called The Machine Dynasty. The first novel is about a self-replicating humanoid robot, Amy. Amy has lived with a mixed synthetic/organic family for five years. When Amy witnesses her abusive synthetic grandmother attacking her very loving synthetic mother at her kindergarten graduation, she runs up on stage and eats her grandmother whole. Thereafter, she has to survive with her very nasty granny inhabiting a partition of her mental drivespace. Granny has a rather different opinion of humanity than Amy does, and she has a plan for them. It’s not pretty.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The inspiration came from a lot of places. Obviously, there are famous stories like Asimov’s robot tales and Bradbury’s I Sing the Body Electric! and King’s Gramma. And of course Blade Runner, which I saw before I read the novel that inspired it. But I’m also pretty steeped in anime franchises like Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, especially the Stand Alone Complex television series. And of course, I’ve read my share of Haraway.
Initially, I wanted to write a story about a human man discovering that his wife and child were actually robots. Then I realized that was a Twilight Zone-style story, and that writing about a world in which robots were already out and about was more interesting. And in general, my inspiration comes from conversations I have with other people, especially other writers. We talk up ideas all the time. When I come up with something that’s too good to let go, I pursue it.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
We were a genre-loving household. My dad had a lot of Asimov and Herbert and Heinlein around, and my mom was a huge Stephen King fan. (There’s a copy of Night Shift at my parents’ house with my teeth marks in it. I literally cut my teeth on that book.) She also read plenty of mystery novels – Elizabeth George, J.A. Jance, Caleb Carr. And we watched plenty of genre media. Dad introduced me to Blade Runner when I was in the third grade. But we also watched a lot of Star Trek, The X-Files, and so on. My next-door neighbours also made sure I watched my share of Babylon 5 and Farscape. And a significant number of my high school friends were into both SF and fantasy anime, from Utena to Evangelion.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I enjoy being a writer very much. But I recognize that my experience is influenced by living in Toronto, a city with a huge community of writers and readers who are very supportive of each other. Every week there’s a reading or a launch or another literary event here, and that’s a luxury I’m lucky to have. The other luxury I can claim is having a great workshop – the Cecil Street Irregulars – available to me as a writer. They’re a very supportive group, but not above sticking it to a story when the story just isn’t good enough. I’ve come home from bad nights at workshops and felt like I should just stop trying, but I didn’t. Later, when I was editing vN, I cultivated that same merciless attitude and I like the book a lot better for it.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
The realization was pretty gradual. I’d always liked reading and telling stories, but I didn’t start writing them until my teens. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I met professional writers, that I realized I could actually be one of them. But the realization that writing was my favourite thing to do in the world – that happened around age fourteen. And it was lovely, but also bittersweet. It’s hard when your favourite thing is so hard to share with other people until the very end.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think the need for science fiction is greater today than it has ever been. Not only do we need big ideas to combat big problems like climate change and the energy crisis, but we need stories where scientific endeavour is treated as valid and necessary. There’s a disturbing anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment running through mainstream first-world culture, and it’s resulted in nothing but measles outbreaks and teen pregnancy. The pursuit of scientific discovery has phenomenal potential to bring about social justice in the world, if we just let it. It starts by educating our children in the sciences and encouraging them to stick with it, and that process starts by inspiring them. That’s where good storytelling comes in.
I’m not saying I’m the best person for that job. But the people who read my work tell me that I’m bringing something new to the conversation about what’s possible. That’s what fiction writing has in common with academic writing: it’s a conversation. Science fiction is no different.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
Well, I’m working on the sequel to vN, called ID. I’m also doing foresight consulting for a start-up, and writing some science fiction prototypes for Intel’s IXR lab.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I’m halfway through The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I’m also reading Postcolonialism and Science Fiction by Jessica Langer, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s latest. And I have a subscription to The New Yorker and The Walrus. I don’t read them cover-to-cover, but I always find something to dogear. This week it’s a piece on artisanal Russian cuisine.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m very short. Like, five feet. It’s the thing that tends to surprise people when they see me up close. It’s not that they thought I’d be taller, or anything. They’re just surprised at the size. One time I was standing in line for a department store cashier, and a little girl in the line beside mine pointed at me and said: “Mommy, why is she little?” True story.
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Seriously, though: I’m looking forward to the release of vN and the writing of ID, and also to the release of my partner David Nickle’s second novel, Rasputin’s Bastards. It’s a big summer for the two of us, and we couldn’t be prouder of each other.