Escapism: Interview with Justina Robson, Bestselling Sci-Fi Author

Justina Robson is from Leeds, England and was born in 1968. She is the author of eleven published science fiction novels and many short stories. She was the winner of the 2000 Amazon Writers’ Bursary, for her first two novels which explored AI and human engineering respectively. Her third novel moved towards the far future – set in a transhuman solar system of political upheaval and personal change as humans encounter their first post-singularity aliens. After that her stories branch out towards the metaphysical and esoteric within that same universe, in the most philosophical of her SF books, “Living Next Door to the God of Love”.

After that she took a sharp left turn into a series – “Quantum Gravity” – which, while different in tone, continued playing with cyberpunk and bodily augmentations alongside the mystical and magical incursions of other kinds of realities into the human contemporary world.

She has most recently written about further human engineering in the female-centric world of The Raft, featured in the novel “Glorious Angels”, and in the corporatized far future where people themselves are commodities of an entirely cynically constructed environment – “The Switch”.

It’s more or less what you would expect to write if you spend all of the 1980s absorbing SF, Fantasy and cartoons, and then all of the 1990s trying to figure out the nature of existence through Classics, Linguistics, philosophy, psychology, literature and the occult, then add some action movies and an uncomfortable relationship with humanity. It’s complicated.

In addition to her original works she has also written “The Covenant of Primus – the Hasbro-authorised history and ‘bible’ of The Transformers.

Her short stories range widely, often featuring people and machines who aren’t exactly what they seem. 

  1. To what extent do you find reading science-fiction to be a resort when attempting to escape reality? How is it different than escapism achieved through reading other genres of fiction?

I used to read fantasy for escapism more than SF. SF was always much closer to reality for me, only a partial escape, in that it was focused on the future (an evolving uncertainty) and not the past (a done deal and therefore a security). Neither future nor past is reality, but SF has always hinted at forces working within systems that are persisting, active and alive (I’m talking about philosophical, issues-interested SF, not things like Star Wars, which are classed as SF because they are set-dressed as the future, even though they are basically fantasy, according to my classification). Escapism also came in the form of romance reading and, to some degree, crime and thrillers. I’ve never enjoyed contemporary literary fiction very much, I don’t know why.

2. Is escapism successfully and positively achieved through writing science-fiction as well? In other words, does it transport you, as a novelist, to alternative realities?

I have a very powerful imagination and I cultivated it endlessly since childhood, so I am capable of creating imagined realities which are really strong, for me. I was a lonely, isolated child living in a world of older adults for much of the time. Sometimes I filled my world with beings, and sometimes I imagined things that were entirely removed, in secondary worlds. I didn’t make much distinction. I felt that I didn’t fit in with reality very well, I didn’t like a lot of it and I struggled with coming to terms with a lot of unpleasant knowledge – about the human conditions to date on this world. I can’t speak for other people but this ability can be a huge positive or a terrible drawback depending on how it functions in your life and that’s for you to govern. It’s been both of those things for me at different times.

3. As a science-fiction and fantasy writer, what do you think attracts readers to science fiction?

Different things. There are as many people liking it for escape and far-flung visions as there are for its ability to analyze, process and discover the many layers of reality that are always working in any situation, particularly those to do with perception and technology. You can find SF across a huge spectrum, full of different interests. Everyone can find something there. I always particularly valued it for the ability it has to see futures that are positive, offering directions for personal evolution, and for the way it can deal with internal tensions by externalizing them to different degrees. And I love the escapist things too, because they are fun, an expression of joy and even when they are violent and dangerous, they are still expressing this exuberant belief in a living, dynamic future. Where SF is at its most bleak I have least time for it, not to deny its power or importance, but because I already had enough of that just living, I don’t want to spend more time on it, I don’t need it pointed out to me and I don’t find it cathartic. I sometimes wonder if reading about it, drawing it into focus, amplifies it and makes it more powerful – and in the cases where it is bleak and life-denying, then that is a very bad thing. But art is how you find it and you make it as you observe it in large part so this is only me speaking about my inner world again. You will find what enhances your own inner world and your understanding, and like that the most.

4. Why do you write what you write? And when/how did you start?

I started when I was 6 or 7 because the thing my parents most celebrated about me was my ability to use big words and what we had in common was an enjoyment of stories. I read voraciously and writing my own versions of things seemed natural. Why do I write what I write now? Probably it’s some amalgam of all I have read and thought about – it’s like a giant bucket, you pour things in and eventually things spill out. It’s what happens in the mixing bucket that’s interesting – hopefully you find some new colour, some strange beauty; it evolves as you nurture it; perhaps you see it buried in there and have to dig it out.

It’s hard not to recreate what you love in other people’s work. I think it’s a good thing. The trauma and nasty events that sometimes occur in stories are also regurgitations, partly digested, of news and stories, personal events and such, appearing in new forms, trying to find expression. I struggle with these because I don’t want to create more hell. Then I look at other SF work which is very much involved with displaying various hells and I see that some of them are very conscious and considered, analysed for you, like Atwood, but you also get some that are felt, instinctively held out, engaged with at a very personal level, like Dick and I am very much the latter kind of person, so the latter kind of writer. I prefer to live books, not read them. I can read them. It’s not my preferred way. In that same vein I write to live – to make this experience, whatever it is. I can write to explain, to point things out. It’s not my preferred way.

5. Does science fiction offer readers the same type of comfort experienced with fantasy?

I think I answered that in question 1, because where it’s comforting it’s expressing securities and nostalgia, where it is discomfiting it is digging up the dead and chewing on unpleasant, difficult things, bringing them into the light. You can do either with the genre, it’s entirely your choice. In fact you can do anything with it.

6. Your novels have grabbed the attention of scholars from backgrounds in psychology and psychoanalysis. Do you find that your background in philosophy blends into the themes of technology and humanity in your works? If so, does philosophy offer a ‘mystical’ element in the way you perceive and portray technology in your novels?

I used to have great hopes of going through philosophy, psychology, the studies of people and their thoughts, and discovering a ‘cure’ or an ‘answer’ for why humans frequently turn out bad. Not that they don’t do great things. But why do they do all the awful things? That was what bothered me since I was tiny, and now it bothers my children.  My response to seeing it was to feel I must find a way to fix it. SF gave me hope that it was possible. But at the same time I also studied yoga and the occult and read literature – I didn’t want to leave a stone unturned. I went mystic because it’s bigger and more encompassing than reason. That’s a bit wrong. I didn’t go mystic. I always was like that, and I tried to fit everything and pin all my hopes on thinking, logic, reason, because I am from this civilization and those things were touted as the big deal – and it didn’t work. That’s more like it.

7. During the pre-writing phase of ‘conception’, do you find yourself ‘meeting’ your characters and getting to know them well before you start the writing process? And who is your favorite character?

I discover my characters as I’m writing about them. A lot of them are just a feeling to begin with, not a person or anything like that. A notion. A seed of something. As I focus more on them they become more real. My favourite is one of the oldest, who isn’t really a character, more of a companion, alive in a way that goes beyond books and stories. They crop up in bits and pieces all over the place. I don’t think it’s of any consequence to anyone but me.

8. In light of the current world situation, did you get any new ideas for a forthcoming novel? Or is the ‘dystopic’ state we are in now something you already foresaw as a SF author?

I didn’t foresee this situation in particular, because it’s not the particulars but the trends which stand out to me, those long strings that pull and pull across many aspects of our lives and times. There are two basic forces always fighting inside people and they go one way or another – one way is backwards, into conserving, surviving, hoarding, tribalism, and the other way is inclusive, embracing, sharing, tolerating, expanding, cooperating. I see it in Brexit and in Trump’s America. I’m sure you can see it everywhere. The more fearful people are the harder they want to go back into authoritarianism, but there’s more to it. I think you can get a taste for it, a feel for a certain kind of power and you won’t want to release your grip because it seems safe. And if you’ve felt the freedom and limitless inclusion of the other direction then you know a kind of vast exhilaration and a happiness of acceptance and togetherness and you won’t want to give that up. From there the other side looks small, petty, mean. It’s hard to articulate these things, they’re better expressed in stories as they go through every aspect of life and a single person can host many impulses. Writing a story deals with it in a way that is unconscious – played out externally rather than conscious – played out internally, usually in words. I don’t have the clarity of a mystic like Sadhguru (Jaggi Vasudev) who has the skill of both perceiving and being able to speak of these things in a very logical, rational, manner. It’s muddy to me. I can see it, but I struggle to articulate it.

9. How ‘real’ are your novels to you?

Entirely real when I write them. Years later, only memories, sometimes not even that.

10. Are there any new writing projects that you are currently working on?

I am completing a conclusion/sequel to Glorious Angels, and working on something new. I’m not sure what it will be. It has many elements, very escapist in one way and searingly critical in others so a strange beast. I’m writing some short fiction here and there. I am slow these days because I keep having various crises of focus and experiencing uncertainty about what I am doing and if I’m doing anything worthwhile. Par for the course for me. I’ll find my way, eventually.

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