Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Athena Andreadis Interview

On Sunday I reviewed The Other Half of the Sky, an anthology of science fiction stories focussing on female characters. I loved the collection, and today I’ve asked the editor, Athena Andreadis, to stop by and tell us some more about herself, her projects, and the anthology.

Hi Athena! Thank you for visiting to talk about The Other Half of the Sky. It’s a wonderful collection! What made you decide to put together the anthology?

I was fed up with the fact that in the 21st century we still have to argue about whether women can be protagonists, heroes and agents of destiny beyond the narrow roles prescribed by primitive interpretations of their biology. The drizzle of reprint anthologies left me feeling malnourished, although I recognize their value for new readers. It was also disheartening to observe the ghetto-within-the ghetto segregation of women writers into fantasy. Finally, I was fed up with the fact that we consider women’s issues solved and feminism “passé” when facts speak loudly otherwise.

How did you go about finding stories for the collection?

I solicited writers whose work I liked intrinsically (as worldbuilders and wordsmiths) and also in terms of their views of women as full humans. Everyone I asked who was not already overwhelmed with commitments accepted the invitation.

Were there any tropes or stereotypes in particular that you wanted to avoid?

My guidelines were broad but gave a good sense of what I wanted and didn’t want:

-- Space opera(ish) and/or mythic, but it has to be SF -- not fantasy;
-- female protagonist(s), who do not/are not made to feel guilty about career versus family;
-- content and style geared to adult readers, not YA "finding one's self/place";
-- no "big ideas" Leaden Age SF or near-future earthbound cyber/steampunk.

I wanted to see worlds where equality is as natural and taken for granted as breathing, and women are free to do anything and everything they want without having to spend time and energy justifying choices that go beyond supporting roles. I also wanted SF that had layers and echoes and was not the standard conquest-mode space opera populated by alpha male demigods. I wanted to see full adults doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: vocations and relationships, but also the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. And I wanted to see it done as literature, not hackery trying to hide behind the fig leaf of “story of ideas”.

What exactly does the editor of an anthology do? What are the steps from initial idea to finished collection?

An anthology editor is like a startup owner or the head of a lab: a cross between a main node of a complex network and a cat wrangler. She crafts the collection guidelines, solicits the participants if the anthology is by invitation, reads the submissions closely and discusses how to burnish them with their creators at all scales. Someone in my particular configuration also chooses the co-editor, cover artist and publisher (more commonly, publishers choose editors for a project and they also have a decisive voice about the cover artist). In my case, it was a serendipitous lagniappe that while “looking for the best” I ended up with women in the co-editor, cover artist and co-publisher slots.

Once the submissions and cover art have been finalized and approved, the editor, with the co-editor’s help, orders the stories so that they form an arc; she also shapes, issues and tracks the contracts. After that, she gets intimately involved in the production process (a whole universe in itself) and the publicity mill: endorsement solicitations, requests for reviews, promotion at relevant conventions, the book site, social media.

In The Other Half of the Sky I particularly liked how not all the female characters were necessarily heroes or good people, or powerful in a traditional sense, but always felt like real people. Were you very conscious of trying to include a range of different kinds of characters?

I trusted the authors I invited to give me wide ranges in all dimensions without prompting. They certainly didn’t disappoint me. As they say, the way to get things done is to choose your partners with care, then let them do what they’re best at. An editor, like a lab head, needs to know not only what to say but also when and how to say it.

I love how the title The Other Half of the Sky can refer to both women and other underrepresented groups in science fiction. The characters and societies of these stories are very diverse. Was this a deliberate aim when putting the anthology together?

It was my desire and hope that we’d end up with all kinds of diversity without me forcing the issue. Yet again, my collaborators amply fulfilled my expectations. What pleased me the most was the fact that most of the stories depict non-Anglo worlds.

A lot of the stories have a strong focus on identity as part of a family, a unit, a tribe, a society, or a ship’s crew. This seemed to me to be one of the biggest differences between the stories here and the traditional narrative of the male ‘chosen one’, who tends to be rather an isolated figure. Do you see this as an important part of the collection, and why do you think this, in particular, is a recurring idea?

Real human beings (like real genes, not the “selfish” imaginary entities of social Darwinists) never exist, function or act in isolation. Only US teenagers of all ages think that the angsty isolated “godling mode” is a viable mode for either reality or fiction. It was part of my wish to see complex networks and relationships but, again, I didn’t force the issue. Unless I was projecting powerful thought waves… (ponders).

When you were putting the collection together, did you have a ratio of fun-to-serious, sad-to-happy, etc, stories that you wanted, or were you lucky in receiving a good balance?

I didn’t specify any of that. I took them as they came – but of course I had handicapped the game by my initial choice of contributors.

What do you see as some of the biggest problems concerning women writers and female characters in science fiction?

Shoehorning into Procrustean slots by people who confuse parochial views with universal truths. Characteristic example: “Women are never soldiers, hence blablabla.” This can only come from people who think of war as conquest, never as defense of one’s home. Resistance movements swam with women across all times and places.

Do you think things are changing?

They seem to be stagnant, despite the veritable flood of talented non-whiteanglomale writers in the domain. See: 2013 Clarke Awards roster and the larger plight of women SF writers in the UK. Or the Vida statistics about representation.

For readers who enjoyed the collection, can you recommend some great female authors of science fiction, or sci-fi books with memorable, believable and well written women?

Here are a few selected memorable SF works that combine both attributes (women authors, women heroes):

C. J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station (Signy Mallory)
C. S. Friedman, In Conquest Born (Anzha lyu Mitethe)
Octavia Butler, Wild Seed (Anyanwu)
Joan Vinge, Eyes of Amber (T’uuppieh)
Melissa Scott, Trouble and Her Friends (India Carless)
M. J. Locke, Up Against it (Jane Navio)
Aliette de Bodard, On a Red Station, Drifting (Linh, Quyen)
Kristin Landon, The Hidden Worlds trilogy (Linnea Kiaho)
Bharati Mukherjee, The Holder of the World (Hannah Easton)

How did you become involved in science fiction? And what do you do when you don’t edit?

I read science fiction since I was a child – the first book I remember reading was Verne’s unexpurgated Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. But then again, I vacuumed up everything, regardless of genre (which is much more fluid and porous outside the Anglophone sphere). When I’m not writing, editing or hugging my yetis, tigers and bears, I conjure in the lab: I do basic research on the molecular causes of dementia, though my work has been decimated by the funding shortfalls of the last decade.

Are you working on anything else at the moment? Another edited collection, or your own fiction perhaps?

I’m always working at my fiction; I have a large universe from which two stories have been published so far (Dry Rivers and Planetfall, in Crossed Genres; Planetfall has since appeared in World SF and will be in Apex World SF 3). It starts in the Minoan era – an alternate timeline in which the civilization survives the Thera explosion – and reaches far into the future, with the descendants on a distant earthlike planet. The combination of layers, mythic echoes, women protagonists (often first-person and not needing to “find themselves”) and non-Anglo backdrops has made publication nigh-impossible. But once I have enough beads to make a necklace, I will make sure they find a home.

If The Other Half of the Sky does well, its successor will focus on women scientists and engineers in universes of true equality. Triple goddesses!

Do you have a favourite author or book?

Fraught question to ask a bookworm! I have as many favorites as the sky has stars.

Good answer! I always find that question impossible too.

Okay, a fun question to wrap up with. If you could live in any of the worlds or societies of the stories in this collection, which would it be? (Mine would be the universe of ‘Sailing the Antarsa’, or maybe Boscobel because the tree-world sounded fascinating and fun)

Indeed, I could see myself living happily in either of these universes. But I’d be even happier as a Raksuran court queen! I’d feel right at home, since one of the cultures in my universes is matrilineal and practices polyandry. But it’s not a mirror image of polygyny: the co-husbands feel and act like brothers (it helps that they’re telepaths).

Ooh that sounds interesting! I’ll definitely be looking out for your fiction in future.

Thank you for stopping by Athena!

Athena Andreadis
The Other Half of the Sky will be out later this month from Candlemark & Gleam. Read a free sample on their website!

Athena Andreadis was born in Hellás and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She’s an avid reader in four languages across genres and the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. She also writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics and cherishes all the time she gets to spend with her partner, Peter Cassidy. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless. (Bio from The Other Half of the Sky: Contributors)

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