In Ask A Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we spoke to Robert Repino about absurd versus serious science fiction and the contradictions in the way we treat the literary genre.
Where do you get your ideas?
For Morte in particular, the idea came from a dream. I record my dreams. Most of them are obviously ridiculous and wouldn’t translate into anything. But in this case, I had a dream about an alien spacecraft over the neighborhood where I grew up. The aliens were sort of uplifting the animals and turning them into sentient beings. They were going around killing people. In the middle of the night, I wrote down this word Morte, which didn’t mean anything. From there I started putting the story together.
Eventually, I turned the aliens into ants because I wanted it to be a species that had a real bone to pick with humanity. About where I get my ideas in general, though, I’ve probably been way too influenced by the era in which I grew up: ’80s science fiction comedies. That’s my favorite genre of film. Back to the Future, Ghostbusters. Zany, highly implausible but very fun stories with characters you relate to. Everyday people.
Do you think science fiction and fantasy has gotten too serious, of late?
We’re still exploring that seriousness. I feel like with Game of Thrones and other genre material that has gone a little dark, there’s more to explore there. I’d like to see science fiction do a little more social commentary. There’s a lot to be serious about there. A lot seem to want to create a space opera or something similar to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. I hope they’re able to do that while still commenting on the world we live in now. There’s room for it to be even more serious. With my own interests, I was trying to do both. I’m trying to write a story that’s implausible to the point where it’s almost absurd, but there’s still some of these important issues like politics and the environment and animal rights and the future of humanity.
What are some of your influences?
I quote Margaret Atwood in the beginning of the book. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite novels. I also really liked Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness — I love the way that story is told through different perspectives. I really love 1984. When I teach creative writing I end up berating the students who haven’t read it yet. The scene in Room 101 is probably one of the most important things I’ve read in terms of the stuff that I write. It’s very intense and terrifying and sad.
What’s something you’ve read recently that’s fascinated you?
For my day job, I work for a scholarly publisher. I’m reading reference articles all day long from all over the world, on many different topics. It’s mostly religion and history. Specifically Islam, biblical studies, and African-American studies.
One of the websites I help with is the Oxford African American Studies Center. We also do some primary source documents. A lot of those are very interesting, especially the ones relating to the Underground Railroad and slave resistance. I’ve been working on biographies from the Caribbean. The stories of slavery from there are really astonishing. We’re working on a six-volume dictionary. It’s going to have, like, 2,000 people profiled. There were people who created communities of escaped slaves who lived in the rainforest in Brazil. These things don’t have much material in the historical record, but what we do have is amazing. There’s a whole culture that builds up around these communities. There’s so much more to learn about it.
What are you working on next?
I’m in the process of putting together a sequel to Morte. I’m also writing a spin-off. There’s a character who’s a bobcat who thinks he’s Rambo in the novel, so he’s going to get his own little story. That will be a stand-alone ebook. But the sequel will come out in 2017. After that, I’m returning to this YA novel that I’ve been working on for a while now, which is based on my time at an all-boys Catholic school outside of Philadelphia. I feel like if you go to one of those schools, you have to write a book about it.
Will it be sci-fi?
It’s straight fiction, but the main character is so whacked out of his mind that he treats the world as this fantasy/science fiction place. So it is literary or more realistic, but this character is so crazy that it becomes blurry.
What is the main value of absurdist sci-fi?
I suppose it’s probably more conducive to satire than some of the more serious or hard science fiction might be. If that’s what you’re going for, having a character who’s a pig or something might lend itself more to satire. Also, the imagery of it can really grab the reader. If you’re showing them something that they haven’t seen before, obviously we’re all striving for that in some ways. But if you’re really putting them in this crazy world and making them identify with characters that couldn’t possibly exist, I think that’s what fiction is supposed to do.
What do you think is the genre’s future?
The conversation about literary versus science fiction is going to continue. A lot of people are sick of it, but I think it’s an interesting one to have, especially in light of some of the weird things that have happened in literary fiction lately. Like some kid getting a $2 million contract for his first book. That’s an interesting phenomenon that happens in literary fiction that we as a community need to talk about it more. It’s kind of strange. We’re talking so much about trying to bring in more voices, trying to get more perspectives, and then you still have this habit of anointing a 28-year-old white guy as a genius and giving him $2 million.
What’s weird is that phenomenon isn’t really in the genre world. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just a matter of them not having as much money. Obviously, people sign big contracts for science fiction stories, but in a lot of cases, people have already produced a great amount of work. Like John Scalzi just signed some big thing with Tor about a year ago. But he had already produced dozens of books. It’s just something that we ought to keep yelling at each other about. I don’t know what the right call is, it’s just part of the fun in all this.