Read on below for the alien origins of Thoraiya Dyer’s characters in “A Civilization Dreams of Absolutely Nothing” on sale now in our current issue. Our newest Q&A features insights on how to beat writers block, research rabbit holes, and how veterinary medicine might help a science fiction career.
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
TD: The spark of “A Civilization Dreams of Absolutely Nothing” was something that never made it into the story. It was non-physics-expert-me trying to understand how a ramscoop, which sucks in protons for fuel, could work in any sort of solar system proximity without destroying itself by attracting heavier magnetic particles.
It bothered me for ages, like trying to understand a baby who could only eat sharp knives, or a fisherman whose anchovy bait inevitably attracted kraken, before my thoughts turned to empty space, hard vacuum, the safest place (though the least nourishing place) for the theoretical ramscoop to live.
How could I have characters out there? A viewpoint? A story? I remembered reading about a hypervelocity star, HVS3. Spewed out of the center of the Milky Way, it’s rocketing away from the rest of us so fast it’s traveling away from our galaxy, heading out on its lonesome to . . . where? Will it be captured by another galaxy, or eventually just burn out, surrounded by absolutely nothing?
These starting conditions for the setting meant that my characters couldn’t be human. Or in contact with humans. Yet somehow I had to humanize them enough for us to care.
I started by naming them according to something all we gravity-bound planet-dwellers have in common: we stomp our little feet or paws or stick our roots into rock.
That’s how the parents of my little alien family came to be called Jade and Shale.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
TD: I wanted to not relate to any of them—how similar could we be, even both arising from an evolutionary process?—but, as previously mentioned, without some thoughts and emotions in common—parental protectiveness, family loyalty, determination, ingenuity, and above all, love—there would be no story.
. . . without some thoughts and emotions in common—parental protectiveness, family loyalty, determination, ingenuity, and above all, love—there would be no story.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
TD: Shale, Jade, and the others have the ability to join a communal dream by growing the dendrites of their neurons between bodies every night. In a sense, the whole civilization is dreaming together of the safety afforded by deep space.
AE: What is your history with Analog?
TD: In my battered old copy of Dune, it says that the story first appeared in Analog in 1964. Growing up here in Australia, I never saw a copy of Analog in a news agency or bookshop, but how much more of a recommendation did I need to submit there when I started sending stories out in 2008? None. Hahaha! My first acceptance was in 2013, for “Wine, Women and Stars,” which went on to win the 2014 Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Short Story.
AE: How do you deal with writer’s block?
TD: Walking, in the bush or by the sea. Hand-writing in notebooks serves me well. I can scribble random brainstormed words around a page and then link them up with arrows. New Scientist and COSMOS magazines are usually a good source, not necessarily of story ideas, but of hope for the future.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
TD: I’ve finished my three epic fantasy Titan’s Forest books and now have turned to a different sort of landscape—a fantasy Arabia complete with princes disguised as peasants, sea serpent riders, rocs and black unicorn cavalry—to start my next novel adventure.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
TD: While researching ancient writing systems for the aforementioned novel draft, I went down the rabbit hole of earliest Fertile Crescent trade documents and came across the Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nasir.
It’s a 3,750-year-old whinge from Ninni, a customer sold shitty, below-par copper ingots. This epic bitch session is preserved for our enjoyment in a clay tablet found at Ur in modern-day Iraq. The ingots were from Bahrain, about 520 miles away.
When Action Man brought me a cup of tea, wondering if I’d finished my words for the day, he found me instead killing myself laughing at Ninni’s outrage. “You put ingots which were not good in front of my messenger[. . .] What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?”
Hahaha. Imagine Ninni giving feedback on eBay.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
TD: Today, I’ll say the Star Wars universe, because precognition exists. Maybe not far enough into the future for my liking, though. I’d love to know how the human story ends.
AE: What are you reading right now?
TD: I’ve just finished library book The Traitor Baru Cormorant and am keen for the sequel. I’m enjoying The Happiest Refugee audiobook by Anh Do in the car during my commute, and I’ve been reading a short story from Shaun Tan’s amazingly illustrated, magnificently written Tales From the Inner City every night before bed.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
TD: My degree is in veterinary science. I flatter myself that working in this field keeps my humans varied and my aliens biologically plausible!
Thoraiya Dyer is an Aurealis and Ditmar award-winning, Sydney-based writer and veterinarian. Her short science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Cosmos, Nature, the anthology Bridging Infinity and boutique collection Asymmetry. Thoraiya’s novels Crossroads of Canopy, Echoes of Understorey, and Tides of the Titans are published by Tor books. Find her online at thoraiyadyer.com or on Twitter @ThoraiyaDyer.