From the Science Fiction Research Association's SFRA Review #243, January 2000:
Reader Beware: Kathleen Ann Goonan
[Kathleen Ann Goonan's first novel, Queen City Jazz, appeared in 1994 to effusive praise from both within the genre (Locus called it "almost certainly the most important debut novel" of the year) and from without (The New York Times named it a Notable Book). She continued her story of a world changed by nanotechnology in her third novel, Mississippi Blues. In between, The Bones of Time explored connections between the remains of Hawaii's King Kamehameha and space travel. She has also published a number of well-received short stories. Her works demonstrate a continuing fascination with the complex interplay of cultural forces as technology blurs the lines that separate past from present and art from life. Though Goonan was a guest at the Science Fiction Research Association Conference in Mobile, Alabama in June, conflicting flight schedules moved the formal interview off of the conference program and onto email.]
CBJ: Your novels seem to be much like the city of Cincinnati in Queen City Jazz: an amalgam of futuristic high technology and nostalgic past, where "regular" people mingle with, and sometimes become, famous figures from history, art, music and literature. What drew you to this mix and what draws you back to it?
KAG: I suppose this comes from having lived with and in books since I was very young. My idea of a perfect summer vacation was ninety uninterrupted days of reading. When I woke in the morning I would pick up the book that fell from my hand the night before as I dozed off and resume reading. I put on and took off the mental personas of many writers, as do the characters in my books. Perhaps the Cincinnati of Queen City Jazz is the continued desire to live among the musical, literary, or visually artistic works of others in a very intense way.
CBJ: Many of your works are intertextual. "The Day the Dam Broke" makes reference to James Thurber's works, Queen City Jazz brings in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, and of course the works of Mark Twain are central to Mississippi Blues. While they are all readable without a strong background in American literature, such a background enriches the works. Does this reflect your perception of the genre and your particular audience?
KAG: I'm afraid this reflects nothing but my own self-indulgence as a writer. I don't really have a particular audience in mind, and I'm quite grateful to have found one. Writers more often than not try to build several levels into their work; The Waste Land, for instance, can scarcely be appreciated except on the level of pure language and image without knowledge of all of the events and texts in which Eliot grounds his work. Perhaps that's why he knew that he needed a day job-that, and the fact that he didn't want a sponsor. I don't want my work to be obscure or difficult to understand; I want a lot of readers because I want writing to be my day job. At the same time, I want the density that those who understand the underpinnings and references might appreciate. For instance, it's not at all necessary to the enjoyment of the recent movie American Beauty to know that it is the name of a rose. But if you know this (I think that it is entirely possible that many viewers do not), it enhances appreciation for the artistry that went into the making of the movie and appreciation of the movie itself.
CBJ: Music is a central element of Mississippi Blues. Given the difficulty of recreating that medium with the written word, have you ever considered hypertext or multimedia presentation of your work?
KAG: When I began writing Queen City Jazz, around 1991, I dreamed of such mediums. I remember going to a panel called "The Future of Publishing" hoping to hear about such applications; when instead the panelists simply spoke of doom and gloom in marketing the same old undigitized books. In my case, I think that obtaining the rights to incorporate the music and art that I've used into the books would probably be prohibitively expensive. I was just reading Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties, in which he at one point paraphrases a Robert Johnson song, and I knew just why he did it. I think that being able to click on music or art while reading a relevant passage would be marvelous, though.
CBJ: You've got a website (www.goonan.com) devoted to your work, and you've published a few stories online. What does the internet offer you as a writer?
KAG: Publicity, for the most part, though like all publicity it is hard to judge the impact or to count the benefits. It is also very good for networking, and wonderful for conducting interviews. I don't believe that digital books will be very popular until more reader-friendly interfaces are available. I find that I don't read anything of any length from my computer screen; I still have to print it off. With a book-length work, you end up paying as much or more to print it off at home, and it is also inconveniently unbound.
CBJ: You mention on your website that a reader suggested to you that science fiction writers should make explicit where "real" history stops and the author's "fictional" history begins. Would you like to comment on the desire for that kind of clear-cut division and how it relates to both the form and content of your works?
KAG: This suggestion was in regard to The Bones of Time. In this novel, I use the life of Princess Kaiulani, Hawaii's last princess. She died tragically at the age of 23, of a rather mysterious and sudden illness, the year after Hawaii was illegally annexed by the US Government. She never took the throne despite her intensive European education, which was to fit her for this task. The book begins in the year 2012, when a Hawaiian orphan "sees" Kaiulani in the streets of Honolulu. He grows up to become a gifted mathematician, determined to solve the mysteries of time and space, in order to validate these continuing visions and time crossovers, for of course he has fallen in love with Kaiulani.
As I say on my web page: "All the Hawaiian history in The Bones of Time is true. The royal family was quite progressive, and Iolani Palace was actually wired for electricity years before the White House was on the grid. The only liberties I took with history were that Kaiulani most probably did not see a man from the future, and that she may not have given birth soon before she died."
Kaiulani may not have given birth before she died, but it is a possibility, one that is seriously regarded by many in Hawaii-though just as many become quite agitated at such a suggestion.
John Kessel, when attending a reading of The Bones of Time, commented that perhaps science fiction writers are all frustrated historians, since so many of us are obsessed with history-with how it was, or how it might possibly have turned out otherwise.
I must say that I think that it's up to the reader to beware when reading a book of fiction with historical characters in it-particularly science fiction. Part of the frisson of reading Harry Turtledove, for instance, lies in knowing the truth-or what is commonly thought of as historical truth-and measuring the fiction against it. An afterword might be in order, but that depends on the circumstances. There may well be some readers who believed, after reading The Bones of Time, that I made up Princess Kaiulani and the history of the American annexation as well.
It puts me in mind of having read a book, when I was about twelve, called The Day on Fire by James Ramsy Ullman. A boy in rural France grows up to be a radical poet. What a fabulous character, I thought. And how strange that this character went off to Africa after all that and never wrote again. I identified with him quite deeply as he struggled with issues of authority and with the energy, made concrete in his poetry, that picked him out of one life and threw him into another. Several years later, I came across Rimbaud's poems and recognized them as being the same as those of this character; I was . . . it' s kind of an odd sensation, but surely there is a concise word for it in some other language . . . I was struck with pleasure to find that this tortured boy was a real person. No doubt this explanation-that Ullman's character was based on a real person-was somewhere in the book and I just skipped it; it was not, however, billed as biography.
I don't think that it is the duty of a fiction writer to inform the reader directly about what is "real" and what is not.
To reply more succinctly to the content question: it is true that my characters tend to fall into, or are subsumed by, fictional characters or by the authors of fiction, as happens to Mattie in Mississippi Blues. Mattie herself is based on the main character in True Grit, but is host to the later, darker Mark Twain who railed, after the death of his sometimes censorious wife, about religion, imperialism, the hypocrisy of the country, and racism. My characters are in real places with which we are familiar, yet they carry the weight of American history and literature. As far as I'm concerned, they are real as real can be. No explanations or authorial clarifications necessary, or, probably, required. This is the historical and literary soil from which these characters originally sprang; I'm just taking them one step further into pomo land.
As for form: The form of Queen City Jazz was jazz-based in that it was improvisatory; it was also more strictly ragtime in the sense that time itself was torn apart and embedded in the city, so that the characters found themselves infused with different realities much the way we experience art: in pieces. As we live our ordinary lives, we are able to incorporate within them glimpses of other realities via novels, poetry, music, paintings, etc. We almost take this for granted, yet it is an extraordinary gift of our neurobiology that we are able to both create and experience these other worlds. As I composed the book, the chapters were floating free in time; I almost wished I could just tell the reader to access them in any order, but I finally laid them all out and decided on a sequence. The chapter titles echo the titling penchant of jazz composers; they are oblique and intellectual. The chapter may, like jazz pieces, have its foundation in something to do with the title, but like jazz, the reference is often distant.
Mississippi Blues, on the other hand, was linear in form, like the blues, which often tell a direct story. The form is echoed by the river trip, also linear, down the Ohio and Mississippi, and so the book in some sense is picaresque as the characters encounter one adventure after the other. But the adventures are revelatory; more and more of the time-hidden world is revealed in each one. The chapter titles are careless and descriptive of the contents, like those of blues tunes.
CBJ: In Mississippi Blues, one of your characters (Lil, p. 458) observes from her future perspective that at the turn of the millennium there seemed to almost be a conspiracy to keep people ignorant of math, technology, even the effective use of language. Several other characters espouse a sort of anarchist view that all information should be freely available. How much is this a reflection of your own view?
KAG: In regard to the first part of the question: I come by my soapbox honestly; I owned and operated a Montessori pre-through-elementary school for about ten years, and taught for thirteen years. Although the seeming rigidity of the Association Montessori Internationale (Dr. Montessori's own course) almost caused me to drop out before finishing, once I matured as a teacher I realized that she was the first person to dispassionately observe how children learn, and to create a curriculum based on biology rather than baby-sitting or an attempt to homogenize the children of immigrants.
More than once children in my school were labeled by psychologists as being gifted when, in my opinion, they were not; I always met with the psychologist and questioned such designations because I believe that such a label does more harm than good when inaccurately applied. I have taught truly gifted children and they are different. However, children in a Montessori environment generally are reading and writing at age four and doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They are able to do so not because they are special, but because this is the best age, biologically speaking, at which to learn these skills. They may seem gifted when compared to other children their age, but they are just normal children, learning what normal children learn at that age when in a focussed environment. To extrapolate this view to the higher grades (and even elementary school) means that a great deal of time and energy is being wasted-and, unfortunately, the time and potential of many, many children. No wonder there is boredom and, in some cases, rage. Our public schools are based on hundred-year-old ideas about how children learn-and when. We have had a scientific revolution since then. We know a lot more about human development, but this information is not being used in any meaningful way in our public education system.
I don't really believe that it is a conspiracy, however; I think that it is just inertia.
As for the slogan "information wants to be free," I used as one of my resource books Kevin Kelly's Out of Control, which is about the growth of technology, and this is an MIT-based observation about the spread of information.
CBJ: Certainly you hear the occasional lamentations about the immanent death of "serious" science fiction at the hands of media tie-ins, or marketing practices that eliminate midlist authors and present science fiction authors and works (like Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs and Jonathon Lethem) as mainstream literature. What do you think about the vitality of the genre?
KAG: The label Science Fiction covers a vast spectrum of writing, from said media tie-ins to experiments in language and perception. Clute's most recent proclamation is that SF is dead because it has caught up to the worlds that it predicted in past decades and in some cases spawned.
I think that science fiction is important because it is, up to now, the only fiction that takes into account that we really are living in a world radically different than that of our grandparents, and that trend is going to continue, barring a major catastrophe. I think that Clute's framing of the situation is only true if science itself comes to a stop. Despite the fact that some science watchers have said that everything has been discovered and all is understood, that is just not true. I think that further radical and accelerated change is hard upon us. In fact, science is on the verge of changing who and what we are as humans, biologically as well as socially. So far, we are the same old humans living in the midst of a lot of new toys; I think that we ourselves are the next on the list of the changed whether we like it or not. That is what these nanotech books are really about-that, and trying to figure out what it means to be human.
I am as completely fascinated and enthralled by the world of science as only a born-again English major who avoided all science in school (with the exceptions of memorizing the periodic table in high school and doing rote experiments, taking a class about the brains of rats, labelled Psychology, which repulsed me, and finally learning a small bit about rocks, which seemed safe enough-at least they weren't being killed, in order to get my college degree) can be. I was as focused on books and on writing, in my formative years, as Marie Curie was on radium. There has been an enormous outpouring of books about science for lay people in the past ten or fifteen years, and I have benefited from this flood. My background in philosophy is just as strong as my background in literature, and I have come to realize that most philosophers and perhaps many religious philosophers were frustrated scientists. They wanted to know what I want to know-what is going on? But they lacked the tools-the microscopes, telescopes, spectrometers-which would have enhanced their own senses and given them the information they so desperately wanted. It is possible for most people to accept one paradigm or another of what is going on and happily (or unhappily, as the case may be) go through life according to those strictures. Perhaps this is not true of those who read science fiction, at least challenging science fiction, rather than media science fiction, which generally falls into the category of comfort fiction, for which there will always be a market. One can hope that readers such as these-the ones who can't help but question reality-will continue to keep such radical fiction viable.
The marketing realities are another factor, though. I noticed when in London a few years ago that science fiction was shelved with all the other literature, by author. I have also noticed that there are both readers and writers of SF who have read little else than SF, and this contributes to a marked etiolation of the genre. Readers who want a good SF book must keep abreast of the critical literature, which is work, to avoid being disappointed in their purchases. But that is true no matter what kind of literature you prefer.
Nicola Griffith commented in a recent email that she believes that the "art books" of SF will survive, and I think that this is a hopeful prognostication. My definition of such a book would be that it draw from sources other than SF and SF history, that it pay as much attention to language as to plot, that there is evidence of intellect and wit on the part of the author; that it, perhaps, combines low and high art in some new way. That, in short, it is a work that reverberates after being read.
CBJ: According to Locus, you've turned in the manuscript for the sequel to Queen City Jazz and Mississippi Blues. What can readers look forward to?
KAG: Crescent City Rhapsody, due out from Avon Eos in February 00, actually takes place before, and is a prequel to, the world of Queen City Jazz and Mississippi Blues. It begins about ten years from now, and ends several decades before Queen City Jazz begins. It is the story of how that world becomes possible and is about the simultaneous failure of radio and development of nanotechnology seen through the eyes of many characters. Queen City Jazz was seen through the eyes of one character, and Mississippi Blues was the story of what happened to the nation; Crescent City Rhapsody is international in scope.
Present-day New Orleans mob boss Marie Laveau is the victim of a hit when the story opens. However, she still plays a part and is in fact the lynchpin of the book. A radio astronomer in southwest Virginia has information about the nature of the radio blackouts which quickly becomes classified; he must go underground in order to survive. There is also a Tibetan terrorist, an artist who radically tranSForms Paris down to its very molecules, a Japanese nanobiologist, and a jazz-and-word-loving dwarf. Some of the cultural vectors I use are voudoun and the music of Duke Ellington, who wrote several rhapsodies. Add to this recent research on the creation of magnetic maps in the brains of birds, fish, and many mammals, and stir well.
I am presently working on Light Music, the final book in this quartet. I return to my fascination with the new science of Consciousness Studies, and relate this to superstring theory and the fact that "All the distinctions we make to see plaids, Kandinskys, traffic lights, and flowers are stimulated by wavelengths of light that are so close to one another, it is as if symphonies of music were being performed and perceived in the range of tones falling between a B and its nearest Bb." (The Missing Moment, Pollack, p.35) What if were able to expand this range of perception to, say, at least the next lower or higher half-tone? Let us say that we are living in the aftermath of an astounding change in human consciousness, or, at least, in a zeitgeist that began with the changes we digested (or not) when we became aware of evolution, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. What will the next few zeitgeists be, and how will they, in turn, change us?
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