Interview with Dora Raymaker

WG: Dora, I think that, for many in the general reading public, it is something of a surprise to find out that much of the most interesting fiction now being written in Disabilities Literature comes from the genres of science fiction or speculative fiction. As a writer who identifies as neurodiverse, what draws you to these genres?

DR: I’m not sure there’s a conscious connection between my love of speculative fiction and my neurodivergence. I think it start’s just taste or preference. I remember getting into the OMNI magazines my dad would bring home and clawing straight to the fiction section—which typically I didn’t understand because I was ten, but I could imagine what was happening from the art! I loved mysteries too—both straight-up like Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown and supernatural mysteries like The House with the Clock in its Walls, other weird books I still remember like House of Stairs and I… As I got older I came to really love spec fic for the permission it has to trouble and subvert mainstream narratives in ways straight fiction can’t get away with. Also, space ships and ghosts are fun!

WG: Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say of speculative fiction that it has “the permission … to trouble and subvert mainstream narratives in ways straight fiction can’t”?

DR: I feel that speculative fiction can go (at least) three places other genres can’t as easily. One is that it provides enough distance on the real world to poke at things that might be too sensitive for people to look at directly in our world, or that might come with too much baggage to examine clearly. Another is that it can craft a world to specifically call out features of ours and spot-light them. And thirdly because it’s still a stigmatized medium, it has permission, like the jester, to laugh at the king.

WG: Using your own novel, Hoshi and the Red City Circuit, can you give examples of how each of those three characteristics can be accomplished?

DR: Well, whether I accomplished it is more up to readers, but I constructed the Liminal Universe where the novel takes place, in part, to allow me to deal with disability rights in a way that is accessible to people outside our community. The Operator class—“nauta” within their own culture—are designed to trouble mainstream notions of disability. The social context they exist within was designed as an exaggeration of our own systemic oppression. For example, the way nauta are bought by corporations and forced to work a particular job while being gaslit about their prospects outside the system is both a reflection of sheltered workshops, and a reflection of exploitation in more high level professions (e.g., we will put up with almost any abuse out of fear of losing the opportunity for work). However, it’s also a fun SF future-world full of entertaining characters and cool technology, and an entire virtual world of imagination-made-real, so it’s not like reading a savage academic discourse in social justice. I aim to write main characters who enable those of us with disabilities to embody a hero like ourselves, and for those who don’t experience disability to get what it’s like from our perspective in a way that’s framed in social justice terms instead of deficit terms. The SF elements operate like an analogy—providing insights into something hard to understand (disability justice in our world) by relating it to something easy to understand (the nautas’ path toward justice in the fictional world). As far as being a stigmatized medium, that just comes with the genre. I don’t currently have sufficient reach to necessarily make a big impact—most people think of me as a scientist not an author, and that’s where I’ve had impact—but I’m hoping that my work might catch on more broadly at some point!

WG: I think that readers of Hoshi will be excited to hear that you have a new novel coming out that has much in common with your first book. What can you tell us about it?

DR: I am excited too!

The new book is called Resonance, and it’s set about 10 years before Hoshi in the same universe. It covers the start of the events that result in Hoshi’s world—the Operator Rights Movement, and the first contact with the alien élan vitals—and focuses on some of the historical characters and events referenced in Hoshi. While connected, both books are independent of each other, and can be read separately and in any order. The new one is straight literary sci fi.

There’s another kind of connection in that Hoshi only exists because I couldn’t write Resonance. Resonance has an unreliable, difficult main character who draws heavily from autobiographical materials and it tells a complicated story. I just didn’t have the chops for it. So I thought, “I’ll write something with an easy narrator and plot—I know, a detective, a mystery, yeah, okay!” It still took me a few years to work Resonance out after that, but Hoshi taught me some things I needed to learn.

As far as what the new novel is about, the short answer is it’s about what lives on the edge between hope and fear.

The disability themes are much around what we do to survive within systems of oppression. There are three Operator characters who try to work around the system in different, but equally destructive ways—one chooses to hide his disability with a drug that’s killing him, another chooses organized crime because it’s the only place that will let her be herself, and a third runs away into isolation. So it also is a disability “coming out” story, of these people—and others—saying screw this, we demand a better option. We demand control of our own lives without fear.

But then, of course, I hope it’s also a fun sci fi story! It takes place on Jupiter’s Galilean moons in the 26th century. There are underworld underdogs and evil corporate overlords and all sorts of cyber punk goodness with a dash of complexity theory, incorporeal aliens, future-music and hungry native sea life beneath Europa’s ice!

Also, my favorite character ever, and a chance to tell a story where art saves the world.

I could go on and on—I actually love this book most of anything I’ve ever written LOL

WG: You say that Hoshi taught you some things that you needed to know. Can you expand upon that?

DR: No one is born able to craft novels people want to read. Art is a perpetual learning curve. I can’t point to a specific thing and be like: Hoshi taught me to do X. It was more like first needing to take apart and rebuild a simple engine in order to understand how to take apart and rebuild the engine in an experimental jet fighter. My mind is always holding more complexity than I have skills to communicate, and Hoshi isn’t exactly simple. But it let me, for example, lean on the structure of a classic detective story and a reliable narrator while I figured out how make a neurodivergent character neurotypical people could relate to. Resonance exists on two timelines with five point of view characters, and the main character Caran Watts is not only neurodivergent but often in altered states of consciousness. So I needed to develop a lot of skill to carry all that.

WG: At the risk of demonstrating my ignorance, can you tell me “complexity theory” involves. (Since I don’t know it is possible some readers may not either.)

DR: Oh, no worries! And I spoke a little glibly with that mushy phrase. My main gig is science, and my doctorate is in systems science, so there’s always a fair amount of that in my fiction. Systems science provides general methods and approaches for understanding things that are too complex to yield to more straight-toward inquiry—like weather systems, stock markets, and social systems. It encompasses fields like chaos theory, game theory, dynamical systems… The relationship between the alien élans and the humans is rooted in the systems concept of a feedback loop, where the élans influence the humans and the humans influence the élans simultaneously. This type of dynamic has the potential to be dangerous, as it’s what creates “vicious cycles” where a detrimental effect becomes exponentially reinforced. One of the point of view characters in Resonance, Noa Oki, is a complexologist—which isn’t a word in our world but it should be!—and she brings science into the novel more explicitly than Hoshi did. Although if you take another look at Hoshi, one of Noa’s popular science papers appears in chapter 20.

WG: If readers are interested in ordering Resonance, where can they do that?

DR: It is up for pre-order now at https://autonomous-press.myshopify.com/products/resonance. You can also ask for it at any brick-and-mortar shop, which can be helpful because sometimes they’ll order more copies for the store. Once it comes out it will also be available on amazon and through other online distributors. I’ll be announcing and adding it to my Goodreads and Amazon author pages, as well as on my Facebook and twitter if you want to know where it lands.

WG: In addition to looking forward to the publication of Resonance, you are going to be co-editing this years Spoon Knife anthology. Since many readers may not be familiar with the anthology, can you describe it and talk about the kind of work that you will be looking for?

DR: Yes, I’m co-editing Autonomous Press’ 5th Spoon Knife anthology for 2020 with Andrew Reichart.

Each year’s anthology has a theme to interact with along with themes of neurodivergence and/or queerness. I have a short story in the 2018 SK3: Incursions called “Heat Producing Entities” that features a very young Caran Watts in a dilemma of trust, and a novella in 2019 SK4: A Neurodivergent Guide to Spacetime called “Hearts and Tails” set in my alternate-history 1990’s math punk multiverse and centering a math-savant synesthete whose story we may see more of in the future.

If you’re interested in the anthology name, I encourage you to read Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory of disability which you can read about on her blog “But you don’t look sick”. The theory centers around many of us having a limited amount of energy—or “spoons”—with which to navigate an ablest world. A spoon knife is a tool for creating more “spoons”—or energy to get through our days. In other words, a boost from disability lit!

Submissions are currently open for 2021 SK6: Rest Stop. We take poetry, memoire, and fiction. You can find more information on the Autonomous Press web site.

WG: I’m glad we’ve had a chance to talk about your work. It sounds as though you will be pretty busy between the upcoming publication of Resonance and your upcoming work with the Spoon Knife anthology. Before we finish, is there anything else that you would like to mention about your writing?

DR: Thanks for talking with me and being interested in my work! I think I’d just like to add that what I hope most is that my stories fill some of the need we have for protagonists like us – heroes (or antiheroes!) who are flawed, amazing, beautiful, disabled, and real, and who show us that we can be the heroes of our own stories too.

You can read an excerpt from Resonance in this issue of Wordgathering, and find out more about Dora’s work at doraraymaker.com.