I am still super-excited (and super-nervous) about having a THIRD story out in Clarkesworld. I may get black and blue from all of the pinching of self that’s happening right now.
Today’s publication day post is about the intro story for a series of stories I’ve been plotting out about Admiral Zhen-Juan since 2015, after the publication of “Your Right Arm” in Clarkesworld. But the core idea of taking “prosthetic brains” to their most melodramatic conclusion actually came from a Memory Network conference I attended at the University of Roehampton in 2014. I’d had a crash course of sorts in the directions Memory Studies had taken while I was working on postmemory based on LaCapra and Hirsch’s work for my PhD dissertation. I was intrigued by the idea of prosthetic brains, and excited by the papers presented about “neurolit”. I wasn’t really thinking about writing academic articles about “neurolit” (although I still have a couple of William Gibson articles in drafts). Instead, I badly wanted to write neuropunk type space opera.
So. “Your Right Arm” sold. Directly after, I started drafting my first story about Zhen-Juan on Teja-II. She was sneaking away in the night from her spouse to go on a covert mission for the Bunian Empire. She resented this a lot. I knew she’d been exiled, but I didn’t quite know why. It evolved into a kind of military SF-space-opera-neuropunk hybrid, but it was missing several important components. It took me nearly a year to work out what I wanted to flesh out.
When I write any story, I tend to start with a strong sense of the characters in my stories. My narratives are influenced by my perception of those characters. I don’t think I’ve adored a character as much as I adore Zhen-Juan. Writing her felt natural, with her long face, with her self-effacing lack of ability to see her own qualities (and her faults). And I always wanted to write about a lady time-traveler. I’m not going to say too much about her disabilities because that would spoil the story, but at least two are ones I partially share, one as someone who has been partially paralysed due to spinal injury. So, there was Zhen-Juan.
I had a sense something terrible had happened to estrange her from her home planet. I couldn’t really work out what it was. It really bugged me for a few months. I’d sit down with my paper journal and just come up with several ideas but none seemed to fit who she was as a person, not in an organic, natural progression sort of way. Everything clicked into place after I wrote an academic review about Letters to Tiptree, which required me to read not just the book, but Tiptree’s short stories. It was love at first read for some of those short stories (I’d read “The Women Men Don’t See” when I was a teenager). What I loved about her narratives were how generous they were, how expansive in some ways of the sense of character and place, while a searing anger underscored so many of her stories. It set off a fire in my brain. And I asked myself, “What frightens you?”, which had me remembering that masterclass I took with Ian McDonald about “writing down your fear” in 2015. I freely admit I was skeptical during the workshop because it was all so touchy-feely to my INTj brain but yo! Later, it made SO MUCH SENSE.
So I sat down and tried to work out what scared the ever-loving shit out of me (pardon my french).
And I had my answer.
I’ve known many Yun-Lis in my life. Since my days in primary school. When I was an undergraduate. In my working life. Since I’ve had (mild) successes in both the academic and authorly sphere, I’ve had to endure an escalation of various shenanigans by people who exhibit “zero-sum game, winner takes all” mentality. To no avail would I say or try to demonstrate that, “really, there’s no competition, it’s great if everyone succeeds”. They’d agree but they’d still be obsessed and bizarre. Honestly, the more published I get, the more I feel like a scared rabbit. So there was something to write about, I thought. Needless to say, in real life, I generally shy away from these sorts. They terrify me, though so what better antagonist? I thought that would make an interesting kind of adversary, especially in a space opera military setting. But I don’t like writing outright bad antagonists — and I wanted to show that Yun-Li was a flawed but rounded character. I also wanted Zhen-Juan to be unaware of her own actions and motivations. It was a bit of a challenge, one that required me to sit inside Zhen-Juan’s head quite a bit.
So there you have it. Thematically, I thought to write a story about prosthetic and collective memories (me having fun with the idea of personal and public memory, which I’ve written so many thousands of words about as an academic), family, identity theft, survival, and of course, time travel. But really it’s up to anyone to make of the story what they will, reading is a subjective experience, after all. Don’t let my views as an author determine how you read 8)
I have no real knowledge if I’ll ever sell another Admiral Zhen-Juan story (impostor syndrome never goes away!) but I’m going to keep on writing them because I have never written a character that I liked this much, flaws and all. The next one is more fun!
Note on the title: The working title for this was the Tiptree-esque “Elision Elision The Teeth in My Spine” but I changed it during revisions because “Prosthetic Daughter” was perfect in so many ways (also that title felt a bit pretentious) — it is basically a neuropunk military space opera. This has nothing to do with the a certain anthology which started being publicized around the time my story had already been accepted.