I’m dead happy to welcome Erica L. Satifka back to Parsecs & Parchment. I’m firmly of the opinion she’s one of the most exciting writers out there at the mo. If you’ve not read her stuff yet check out my reviews of her rural cyberpunk novella BUSTED SYNAPSES and her new short story collection HOW TO GET TO APOCALYPSE AND OTHER DISASTERS. And enjoy the interview 🙂
Hi Erica, thanks for coming back! Before we get into discussing How to Get to Apocalypse proper, I’ve noticed Silvia Moreno-Garcia talking about your stories a lot; you were mentioned in her Washington Post piece about best genre fiction of 2021 alongside other cool writers like Jeff VanderMeer and Eric LaRocca. It’s cool to see some of the ‘big names’ talking up small press fiction, has that been pretty cool for you?
It was very unexpected! I freaked out when I read it. It’s an honor when anyone takes the time to review or comment on my work, professional or not. When it’s someone whose writing I really respect, like Silvia, that’s an awesome bonus! She and Lavie Tidhar, who also writes the SF/F column for WaPo, do their best to highlight books from smaller presses. I’m especially happy that this collection is getting attention because short fiction is where I’ve felt most at home over the years and I think my very best work is within the pages of Apocalypse.
Getting into your writing a bit then – a lot of your stories are bleak and cynical and don’t answer any questions or tell the reader what to do or how they’re supposed to feel. I love that about your fiction because there’s a trend of didactic moralising fiction out there today that doesn’t often land right with me. Why are you drawn towards telling the kinds of stories you tell?
I firmly believe that good writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, should never tell you what to think. That’s the way of dictators, manipulators, opportunists, and frauds. This is a belief I’ve held my entire adult life, so to be didactic in my own writing would completely undermine the message behind my work. At the risk of sounding cliché, life is messy and complicated, with no easy answers. My goal as a writer is to show that there are complications in every path and that endings are open to interpretation.
I’m bursting with questions about ‘After We Walked Away’. My own understanding of Le Guin’s ‘The One Who Walked Away from Omelas’ is that the ones who walk away don’t do so simply to do nothing, but to build an alternative. Do you disagree with that interpretation, or have I misunderstood your own take on the story?
I see the fate of the “ones” as agnostic in the Le Guin story; she only says that they know where they’re going. When I first read the story, my impression was that the walkers-away aren’t leaving for the child’s sake, they’re leaving entirely for themselves, and that makes them kind of contemptible. Many of the alternative spins on Omelas focus on freeing the child, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly solve the systemic issues that led to the child being imprisoned and tortured in the first place. If you remove the child without replacing the system, then suffering will either spread out among the entire population (like in our world), or another child will be captured. You haven’t really solved anything. I’m pretty sure that this take isn’t quite what Le Guin intended, but a great story is one where multiple people can come up with radically different interpretations and nobody is “wrong,” and this is certainly a great story.
At least two of the stories, ‘Loving Grace’ and ‘Sasquatch Summer’ hit on themes of automation and wage labour, how in any logical society technology freeing us from work should be liberating, but under capitalism it means poverty because the means of production are still in private hands. How do you view technology under capitalism and why is it such a pervasive element in your storytelling?
There’s a chart online that shows the advance of technology and tracks it against wages and time spent working. The “productivity” line is basically a hockey stick, but the adjusted wages have gone down and time spent working has slowly crept up over the past few decades. That really, really goes against what common sense and even economists say should happen. I think the reason I keep coming back to this is that I see the inability to actually use science and technology to decrease human suffering (due to labor or otherwise) as the central tragedy of our time. It seems like half the population is hostile towards science on principle and the other half is attempting to turn “Science” into a quasi-religion that has very little to do with the scientific method. If we actually get out of this period of history, this absolute misuse of science/technology is not going to be looked upon kindly.
‘Loving Grace’ also riffs on themes from Richard Brautigan’s poem and Adam Curtis’ documentary series, both entitled ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’. What elements of this source material do you find most interesting and/or depressing?
I actually haven’t seen any of Curtis’s movies yet, but I read the Brautigan poem in high school and it really stuck with me as good poems tend to do. I see the poem as fundamentally utopian, technology allowing us to return to “our mammal brothers and sisters.” There’s no implication here that the machines have sinister motives. And there’s no reason that our machines need to have sinister motives either. In both real life and in many of my stories, there’s a human(oid) driving the use of technology to extend the pain of others.
Drug use features heavily in your work too; in ‘The Big So-So’ and also in ‘Act of Providence’ and your novella Busted Synapses, where drugs are used to enhance people’s ability to take part in a kind of gig economy virtual reality. I can’t help but draw parallels with the opioid epidemic; is that something you had in mind when writing these stories?
Definitely, in both cases. I’m fortunate in that no one close to me succumbed to pain pill addiction, though my entire extended family lives in one of the worst areas for pill-pushing doctors. The number of people who turned a blind eye—and continue to do so—to the side effects of medication given out without proper testing is one of the biggest scandals of the past twenty years, maybe more. It ties into what I said about science earlier. People all too often use it to enrich themselves. Given how many stories I write are driven from a real-life issue or opportunity gone wrong, I knew I wanted to explore the impact of the epidemic. I hope that I’ve been respectful enough to the real-world victims and harsh enough on their murderers.
‘Act of Providence’ also shares a world with the events of Busted Synapses; which story came first and what made you want to explore this particular concept further?
Busted Synapses came first; I wrote “Act of Providence” specifically for this collection. This and the world of “The Big So-So” are the only settings that I’ve ever revisited, and I think what keeps me coming back to them, but especially the Busted Synapses world, is that it’s essentially our world five minutes into the future. The idea of cities of the “haves” and vast swaths of America effectively left to rot, well, let’s be honest here, is that so far off from where we may be headed, or what we’ve done already? People actively spoke of “let everyone in State X die if they won’t be like us” during the early days of the pandemic, and sadly, they weren’t immediately decried as monsters. There’s always been a disturbingly high number of people who were content to let people suffer and die. I get to ramp things up to eleven and add cyborgs, but what I’m really doing in Busted Synapses is shining a light on the darker side of a combination of wealth hoarding via key resources and a government allowing it to happen. Unfortunately, the further we get into the 2020s, the more on-target my portrayal of America in the Synapses world feels.
I like that the people in your stories are all very ordinary, but also how a lot of them are employed doing pointless, socially useless jobs like writing internet quizzes designed to sell advertisements. I’m wondering if you’re familiar with David Graeber and his book Bullshit Jobs? Because this is a very real world issue that’s reflected in your fiction, what are your thoughts about the profit-driven need to employ people in ‘bullshit jobs’ while the world burns around us?
Yes, I love David Graeber! I read the Counterpunch article the book was based on and it made a big impression on me. While I have a background in retail (which inspired my novel Stay Crazy), most of the jobs I’ve had over the past fifteen years have been desk jobs which featured a ton of downtime. In reality, there probably isn’t any reason why we couldn’t lower the workweek right now; the main barrier is a cultural taboo (reinforced by those who profit from it) against providing certain things as a public good and/or UBI. However, seeing as we live in a world where even working at home is being demonized in certain sectors for collapsing the commercial real estate market, I wouldn’t place my bets on a cultural shift here any time soon.
Finally, because I’m an insatiable bookworm, what have you been reading yourself lately, and would you recommend any of it?
Right now I’m in the middle of Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, which won the 1969 Nebula Award. It’s kind of a proto-YA science fiction story about a post-Earth humanity that’s been scattered to various colony worlds controlled by a roving generation ship, in which the main character has spent her entire life. I’m a sucker for generation ship stories, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit! Unfortunately, the author hasn’t really published that much fiction, at least that’s still in print. I also read The Crooked God Machine by Autumn Christian a few months back and it really bowled me over. It’s kind of a bildungsroman set in a nightmare world of brain implants and shuttles to hell, where a serial killer is given a parade and you don’t really know why everything is set up like this until the harrowing, fateful end. Cannot recommend this one highly enough.
Thanks Erica, it was a pleasure to have you back and I loved the book, can’t wait for your next one.
How to Get to Apocalypse and Other Disasters is available from Fairwood Press. Her rural cyberpunk novella Busted Synapses is available from Broken Eye Books and you can nab her novel Stay Crazy from Apex Book Company.