Until now, Rajan Khanna has written more fantasy than science fiction. If his story, “Binary,” in our current issue [on sale now] is any hint at what’s to come, then we can’t wait to see what other SF is brewing in his brain. Below, we discuss with Rajan his literary inspirations, de-centering humanity, and his many writing projects in progress.
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
RK: The original seed for the story came about when I was attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2015. The aim of the workshop is to teach writers actual science to use in their science fiction, and during one of our discussions I began thinking about the prospect of sending drones into space instead of people, and then began thinking of ways to send people without sending actual bodies. Once I hit upon the idea of sending a copy of someone out into space, it opened up a whole range of new questions—what would that do to someone, what would it be like knowing that you were only a copy with a limited lifespan, what would you be leaving behind?
AE: How did this story germinate?
RK: While the original concept came as a spark of inspiration, the story didn’t get written for another few years. It germinated for a while as I considered the actual story. A snorkeling trip to Mexico at the end of 2015 helped me imagine the sense of wonder one might feel if floating in space. But it wasn’t until I became fascinated by AI and its application and implications that the story really came together, a couple of years later.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
RK: I think I always have to relate in some way to my main characters for me to be able to write them. Even the villains. That’s just the way that I write, trying to get into the heads of these characters. Shalvi, in many ways, is my way of working through the idea of copying a human brain. We sometimes like to think and imagine that it will be so easy to copy a person, create a digital version, and things will mostly be the same. But what are we without our relationships? Without our bodies? And wouldn’t you somehow lose touch with yourself in some way? I also relate to the idea of getting what you think you want, and have always wanted, only to realize that you really want something else, something you already had.
ALVIN was a lot harder to relate to, but that was really the point.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
RK: Possibly. I think the concept is deep enough that there are more stories to tell about it, and I am curious to explore how the creators of the technology in the story might try to compensate for some of the issues the story portrays.
“We sometimes like to think and imagine that it will be so easy to copy a person, create a digital version, and things will mostly be the same. But what are we without our relationships? Without our bodies? And wouldn’t you somehow lose touch with yourself in some way?”
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
RK: I have a hard time pointing to certain writers who influenced my style, but Roger Zelazny was, and continues to be, a huge inspiration for me for a variety of reasons—his voice, his world-building, and the way his writing seems both potent and effortless. Gene Wolfe is another big influence, particularly the precision with which he reveals things through his writing, and how he never dumbs things down for the reader—he expects you to rise to the text, and so never has to reduce it. Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of my all-time favorite novels as well. I can’t forget Ursula K. Le Guin—The Left Hand of Darkness, which was revelatory for me. Also can’t forget Ray Bradbury, who taught me the power of language. I also have been inspired by writers outside of SFF, like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and then there’s Connie Willis, Michael Moorcock, Octavia Butler, Mary Shelley, and Fritz Lieber, not to mention contemporaries like M.T. Anderson, N.K. Jemisin, Mercurio D. Rivera, and Matthew Kressel. So many great writers to enjoy and learn from. We do stand on the shoulders of giants.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
RK: Up until now I’ve written more fantasy than science fiction, but that is beginning to change, and when it comes to my science fiction, there are definitely themes that I return to. One is the emergence of AI and what form it will take, and the challenge of trying to understand and imagine what an AI might think or feel. Another is the idea of humanity not being at the center of things, or not being the important part of a situation or scenario. Not coincidentally, both of these ideas are explored in some part in “Binary.”
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
RK: Writers’ block means different things to different people, but I’ve always been someone who has more ideas than I am ever able to put into stories. So if I hit a point in a story where I don’t know where it’s going to go, or I can’t figure out what the best ending is, I save my document, close it, and work on something else. At this point in my career, I feel like I can trust my subconscious to continue to work on it in the background while I do other things. I can’t say it’s always successful, but when it is, I’ll often figure out the ending, or what’s missing in a story, while I’m washing dishes or having a shower. When I was younger, the challenge was just to finish things, and I would sometimes do so with brute force, slapping on an ending to a story whether it was completely right or not. Now, however, I prefer to wait and figure out the best ending and take the risk that it might take years. I can always work on something else while it’s brewing.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
RK: I am always working on too many projects if I’m being honest about it. My primary focus at the moment is a YA crime/noir novel which I hope to have finished by the end of the year. I’m also working on a handful of short stories, a television script, and two tabletop roleplaying supplements (one for D&D and one an original game), not to mention writing and recording some original songs.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
RK: I would give up flying cars and jetpacks and luxury spaceliners to have a viable solution to climate change and a way of safely dealing with the plastic in the ocean. I’d probably start there.
AE: What are you reading right now?
RK: I’m always reading several things at once (I think people can see a theme here). Right now it’s a history book about Henry VIII and his wives, Gene Wolfe’s The Knight and The Wizard, and the Black Hammer comic by Jeff Lemire. Next up for me is Patti Smith’s Kids. And I’m still slowly working my way through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
RK: My website is http://www.rajankhanna.com, and I tweet @rajanyk. I’m hoping to launch a new newsletter soon. Information will be available on the website or via twitter.