What happens to old-fashioned storytelling when we spend all our time inventing stories about ourselves and other people online? Do stories become less magical? Does ordinary life become more science fictional? Last week I sat down with Karen Joy Fowler, author of Sarah Canary and the recently-published Wit's End, to find out what she thinks. Wit's End is about, in part, the way the internet has made all of our lives a lot more fictional. And Fowler is fine with that.
One of the characters in Fowler's new novel is a (real life) cult leader named William Riker, which is also the name of the first officer on the Next Generation-era Enterprise. When I sat down with Fowler at a local cafe, I had to blurt it out: "I thought you made Riker up as a Star Trek joke." She grinned mysteriously, replying, "Just because Riker is a real person doesn't make it not a joke. I thought there were fruitful opportunities for confusion with Riker."
I asked her about whether she considers her new book to be science fiction set in the present because all the characters are so consumed by technology, and have relationships with fictional characters online.
A few months ago I thought about how I wasn't getting very much done, so I measured how much time a day I spent online. I still don't want to face what I found out. I have a routine online every day. Email takes longer than I ever anticipated. Plus there are political blogs that I visit more than once a day. I have to chceck up on my government hourly. I also do a fair amount of research online, and I keep up with my friends through their blogs too.
The internet has become such a daily part of my life that if I'm writing a kind of time capsule novel in order to accurately portray what life is like now, I have to include the net - though it's not easy, because characters surfing webs sites doesn't make for exciting fiction. I wanted to think about what [the internet] meant for my life as a public figure and a private person. As well as what it has done to our notions of public and private — that is enormously interesting to me. I have no clue how i feel about it, though I have concerns.
Stan Robinson says we all live in SF novels now. So many aspects of our lives sound as if they should be in the future but they're here right now. I suspect that a novel that takes into account the world now feels like a scifi novel.
Would Fowler consider Wit's End a scifi novel? Here's what she said:
I love genre writing, and there isn't a genre you could name where there isn't somebody working in it that I admire a great deal. But I'm a very contrary person and so rules or formula are actually very energizing and inspiring to me partly because I have no intention of following them. If I have a rule then I can break it. That helps me think about stories and where they can go.
In England, [my novel] The Jane Austen Book Club was marketed as "chick lit." How it's packaged and presented are very different from here in the U.S. It sold very well there but it had a pastelly, chick-litty cover. When I was in England a number of people told me they'd read it based on a review but they never would have picked it up based on title and cover.
Genre only troubles me in terms of representing my work because it's an inaccurate portrait of what I'm doing. If you think you're getting a piece of genre writing, there will be nothing but disappointment and betrayal for you.
I'm relieved when I don't have to answer the question about genre. It's not my job to announce who I am and what I write. People are constantly making that judgment - sometimes they think I'm scifi and some say I'm not. I don't care where you put me. But the science fiction audience has always been my loyal friends.
Given that she admits she loves genre lit, however, I couldn't stop myself from asking what kind of scifi she's watching on TV right now.
I watch Lost with my husband, which is frustrating because he always wants them to answer questions, and I say why are you watching it then? I love the flash forwards this season. When they did that flash forward that appeared to be a flashback — I thought, "How smart are these people!" I used to watch X-Files - and I began to feel like there was no there there. It was just spontaneous "bees! smallpox!" And so in the end I did not approve of the X-Files.
I'm concerned about the politics Battlestar Galactica. The show has taken this horrible turn where we watch people getting tortured. I really dislike that being part of the conversation. I don't want to see that, even if it's done to disapprove of it. It makes torture something that can be discussed. That's just so far beyond the pale. Plus the power structures are so American. There's a Secretary of Education, and a President. Why can't we imagine other political structures?
She also revealed a little bit about what her next book will be about. She's fascinated by recent psychological studies about language acquisition in chimps. "When do we decide that they actually have language?" she asked. So her next book, as she put it, will be about "psychology and chimps." Sounds like a typical Fowler genre-bending brainfest. I can't wait. Image from cover of Sarah Canary.