Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, Book Riot, and The Washington Post. She is the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Realm, and her short story collection . . . And Other Disasters came out in November 2019. She is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and teaches in the genre-fiction MFA at Western Colorado University. Her opinions can be found in The New York Times, The Nation, and Foreign Policy, among others.
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Who were your literary heroes when you were younger and discovering science fiction and fantasy, and does their work still hold up?
When I was a kid I adored Tolkien—I remember in 4th or 5th grade taking the time to draw out fifty individual stars for a school poster about favorite books. I’m rereading it now and while some of it holds up—the worldbuilding, for example—so much of it does not. It’s not just the classism, racism, sexism; there are also a lot of weird clunky plot choices and bent-over-backwards justifications for what are presented as unassailable principles and long descriptions that I mostly skimmed as a kid.
On the other hand, I recently reread The Enchanted Castle by Nesbit and whew is that still weird and kind-of terrifying and bizarrely magical.
I still love Watership Down, if that’s close enough to SFF. It’s a ripping story, with a ton of (ironically) humanity, an engagement with the natural world, and really vivid, lasting characters.
Also The Pushcart War (technically science fiction, as it’s set in the future!), which I remember liking and rereading as a kid but which I now consider a brilliant manual for collective action and resistance to power, as well as formally inventive (the “P” page from the phone book! The letters! The documents! The transcripts) and a good story, if reflective of some regressive attitudes.
There are some other books I liked a lot as a kid but I haven’t reread them recently, so it’s hard to say how they hold up, like Earthsea. I have reread some of the “adult” Le Guin like The Left Hand of Darkness and still really enjoyed it; yes, there are problematic aspects to the proposition, but the worldbuilding has so many fascinating details and the story is gripping.
In high school I read Heinlein, and Bradbury, and also García Marquez and Calvino, then in college I got into Stephenson and Gibson, who definitely influenced how I think about the future and how I write. Again, there’s somewhat of a mix as to how they hold up. I still really enjoy some Stephenson (although I struggled with The Diamond Age last time I tried it). A few years ago, I was asked to write an introduction for an academic volume on William Gibson, so I did an extensive read and overall, his works held up extremely well for me.
Do you feel like they had a noticeable impact on your fiction—do you see them in your own work, or do you have a very different set of influences?
I remember being impressed by Tolkien’s worldbuilding, even as a kid, especially the sense of this vast library of lore that was just being hinted at in the text. Tolkien, of course, had written that vast library, but I did take away the idea that hinting at its existence can make the world feel more real. I usually try to include a lot of details that are not plot-bearing, and some that are only partially explained or noted in a very glancing way to make it feel like there’s a lot to the world that we’re not seeing.
I definitely drew on the cyberpunk influences for the Infomocracy trilogy, although those are filtered through my own experiences in work and academics. The Mimicking of Known Successes has a mystery lineage, notably the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books, which I started reading in college and have continued reading as the sequels came out; the Spenser books, ditto; Sayers, Tey, Marsh, etc., which I read more recently; Sherry Thomas’s wonderful Lady Sherlock series; and of course, the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which have some compelling points but are in many ways terrible. The real mystery is why retellings of those stories are such absolute catnip for me, and apparently for so many other people; I think the answer is complicated and manifold.
What was “breaking in” like for you? Was there a period of submitting and dealing with rejections, or were you selling work right out the gate?
I submitted for years—short stories, agent queries with novels—and got absolutely nowhere. I have one short story that I submitted to everywhere I could find and got rejected, and I was later able to sell it when a magazine requested a story from me, and it’s one of my highest paid sales and has been used in teaching and so on. I try to talk about this a lot because it can be so frustrating. I always found it really painful that I couldn’t tell whether I was failing because my work wasn’t good enough or because it was fine, but editors were overwhelmed with better stuff; and what feedback I did get was so mixed, there was no way to know if I was improving or not. This industry is so hard and so arbitrary. I don’t really know what to tell people other than to try to find peers they trust to work together with, and to not be that person who thinks the first thing they write is fine and definitely doesn’t need work or practice; but also, not to take rejections as an absolute judgment on their work. It’s a difficult needle to thread.
ANYWAY, I was finally able to get a story published at Tor.com. A few months after it was accepted (long before it ran) I screwed up my courage and wrote to my editor there to ask if they were looking for more. They weren’t, but they were just starting their novella program and invited me to submit something for that. I wrote a minimum-length entire novella in two weeks and also added 7,000 words to the novel I was working on at the time to put it just under the maximum and sent them both, telling them the novel was a stand-alone excerpt. It was not stand-alone, but turned out they were open to novels, so I finished Infomocracy over the next two months and they bought it. And the rest, as they say, is the future.
You write in various lengths as well as modes, including poetry. Does poetry serve a different purpose for you than short fiction? Is your approach very different?
Yes, definitely. I need to be a little more mindful of this; recently I’ve been (good) busy with short story commissions and novels, and I need to consciously make time for poetry the way I make time for academic work, since neither of them pay, as such. But poetry, for me, has space for ideas or emotions that don’t necessarily have a full arc; it (usually) doesn’t require inventing characters or settings; and while I try to use imagery and be precise, attentive, and playful with words in my fiction, all of that feels more urgent in poetry.
If readers who haven’t read your short fiction were to take a look at one story, which would you want it to be, and why?
Probably “The Divided” (…And Other Disasters). I’m not sure it’s representative of my work, but it means a lot to me. Or maybe “Narrative Disorder” (https://firesidefiction.com/narrative-disorder). For something more typical of what I write, maybe “Sturdy Ladders and Lanterns” (Current Futures: A Sci-fi Ocean Anthology; reprinted in Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 1). It’s actually hard to choose when I look at my list! There’s a number of stories I really yearn for people to read.
You have The Mimicking of Known Success coming out soon. What was the initial inspiration for the book, and how did it develop from there?
The original idea for the setting was one of those things that I either half-dreamed or daydreamed up: What if living on a gas giant planet with rail-lines encircling the whole planet, rotating geosynchronously and allowing for platforms etc.? Accompanying that was the idea of a zoo of animals from Earth, taking up some of that precious artificial land because the existence of those animals was so culturally important.
This idea was a paragraph in a doc on my computer for years. I dug it up in late 2020. It had been a tough year, and I had been doing a lot of comfort reading and a lot of thinking about the importance of comfort reading and why certain kinds of books were comforting to me, and I decided I wanted to write something that went all in on those elements. I titled my NaNo project “___ but make it fun,” because I needed fun. I thought about what I enjoy reading about, what brings me pleasure in a book: big overarching things like “romance” or “mysteries” or “worldbuilding” but also details like good food well described, or long journeys, or interesting technology, and close friendships, and people who feel comfortable with themselves, and people who fight for a better world. And I tried to pack all of those things into this book. And then it turned out it was also about a post-apocalyptic world and a yearning to go back to what things were like before and deep questions about adapting to new normals, but by then I was enjoying it so much that all that stuff was easier to deal with.
I’ve seen a number of reviews praising your worldbuilding for this one. What is your approach to worldbuilding, and what makes it so successful here?
As I mentioned before, I try to include details that go beyond what’s necessary to the plot: things a character accustomed to that world would notice in their surroundings, with just enough explanation to get a sense of them but maybe not all the backstory. I spend a lot of time thinking about the world and the characters even before I know what the plot is, and I try to write down as many of those details as I can and fit them in, and then when I finish a draft, I tend to layer on more random worldbuilding elements as I go through edits. Basically, I really enjoy spending time in this world!
What are one or two worldbuilding elements you really love in this book that you don’t mind sharing here?
The Mimicking of Known Successes is set on Jupiter, some centuries after humanity moved there in desperation from Earth. In the intervening time, a distinctive culture has developed, including several universities. Academia on Giant (as they call it), is divided into three main areas. Classical studies are anything to do with Earth, and these are by far the most prestigious, since it is believed that these studies will allow humanity to restore Earth and eventually return. Modernist studies focus on Giant. And then there are Speculative studies, about possibility and imagination. I don’t delve too much into that faculty in this book, but I love the idea of dividing up research this way (naturally there are lots of pushes for cross-disciplinary work and those initiatives mostly fail to make any substantive change in how things are conceptualized or done).
Did you do any cool research that, for one reason or another, never made it into the story?
I don’t do a lot of research in general, and when I do it’s mostly to answer very specific questions (e.g. how long is a day on Jupiter? What? It’s that short? Okay I better come up with a societal adaptation for five hours of sunlight). With near-ish future science-fiction like Infomocracy or extra-planetary settlements, as with this book, I figure there’s enough uncertainty that I can follow my narrative instincts (read: disorder) and imagination without worrying too much about it. That said, I do try to not contradict stuff we do know (I’m still annoyed that a country changed the name of its capital that I mentioned in Null States after it was published. Who knows, maybe they’ll change it back).
And since I dislike doing research for research’s sake, I try to work any random stuff that I do learn into the book—if not into this one, then hopefully into a sequel!
Many of the reviewers I’ve seen covering Mimicking love the central characters, Mossa and Pleiti, as well as their relationship. What do you like most about these two, and what were your goals in terms of writing them?
Ahhh, I’m so glad people are loving them! I wanted to show a relationship where these two, when they were in university, had a very passionate attraction, but it wasn’t enough to endure past some of their differences and, I think, general self-centeredness and emotional tempestuousness of youth. When they meet again, the attraction is still there (although neither of them are sure of that at the beginning of the book), but they’ve both matured somewhat and they’re better able to (try to) be intentional about the relationship, think more about what is a misunderstanding or miscommunication and what is a fundamental problem, and value each other.
I do think part of the appeal in Holmes retellings (for me at least) is the neurodivergence of the character, seeing someone on the page who thinks differently, so I leaned into that with Mossa, but I turned some things around. Mossa isn’t all about rationality; her deductions are often about narratives and personalities. Also, the original Holmes-Watson dynamic is pretty awful, as well as fairly unbelievable. Pleiti is not as unusual a thinker as Mossa, but she’s very smart and respected in her field, and she pushes back when Mossa doesn’t include her.
Even though Mimicking has been described as a cozy, I feel like there are still those underlying discussions on power going on. Are there things about this book that you feel may surprise some of your readers?
Frankly I think my readers would be more surprised if there wasn’t some kind of politicking or power dynamic in my books. Also, I subscribe to the Murderbot school of coziness, which definitely includes power dynamics along with an engrossing tale, competence, and characters you want to spend time with.
This is a very different setting and mood when compared to my previous books (although possibly more similar to some of my stories). In contrast to the fast-paced, present-tense, multi-perspective rhythm of the Centenal Cycle books, I was aiming for something atmospheric, with fog and gloom and suspense usually but not always on the other side of windowpanes, kept at bay by conversation and tea and a roaring (gas from the gaseous interior of the planet) fire. Infomocracy has a lot of elements based on my experience working in international and national non-governmental organizations; Mimicking is more about academia—although with a fair amount of action as well.
What would you like folks to know about The Mimicking of Known Successes, what is important or special to you about this book?
I hope this book is a comfort to people when they need it—it was certainly a comfort to me while I was writing it!
Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about you, your work, or The Mimicking of Known Successes?
Demand better than back to normal.
What else are you working on? What do you have coming up that you’d like our readers to know about?
Since it’s modeled on traditional detective fiction, I always intended for The Mimicking of Known Successes to be the first in a series, so I’ve been working on the sequels, making sure they push both the worldbuilding (side trip to Io, anyone?) and the relationship dynamics into new areas, while having a self-contained mystery in each one. It’s so much fun! I’m also working on a non-fiction book based on my Predictive Fictions course, which compares societal attitudes towards science-fiction to those towards other predictions of the future. I’m also working on a couple of other novels—I tend to work on a lot of different things at once.
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