Sarah Gallien’s poem “The New Planet” [in our May/June issue, on sale now] approaches dehumanization through an empathetic lens. Below, Sarah discusses its origins, her writing process, the enigmatic quality of education, and the recurring themes in her work. Read the poem here.
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this poem?
SG: On my way to Seattle Pride, back in 1999, I ran into a man protesting a couple blocks off the main parade route. He had a sign with bible verses on it, and he said we were disgusting and all going to hell, and he had a toddler on his shoulders, which at the time I found tragic. He was not a surprise to me—you can probably imagine him—and we had him outnumbered, but his anger still unnerved me. It was deep. You could see it in his eyes, his spring-loaded muscles. He was seething. I was just a kid back then—modestly dressed in a button-up shirt, with short hair and sensible shoes—but he thought I was disgusting. He really thought we were all disgusting.
I can’t remember why I thought of him this time, but I often do. I wrote this poem shortly after we moved back to the area. I took my kids to a park around that time and found someone had spray-painted “humans” on the side of the bathroom with an arrow pointing at the drinking fountain and “trans” down below it, with an arrow pointing at a set of dog bowls. It may have been that. In many ways, things have gotten better, but we still haven’t lost the instinct to strip others of their humanity. I just finished reading an article about how some Americans are choosing to treat Chinese-Americans during the rise of this pandemic. It’s always horrific and disappointing.
It would be easy to cast this sort of behavior as misplaced anger, to lay it on fear or ignorance. But it also would have been patronizing and dismissive to tell that man that he only thought he was disgusted by me, that what really he felt was something else entirely. If someone said that to me, I’d call it “gaslighting.”
Since as a writer, so much of my work is a practice of extreme or radical empathy, I wondered if, in this time of intense political polarization, I could try to take his disgust at face-value. And if I believed him, believed in his disgust, could I hold that truth and still reach out—through our shared religious background and shared humanness—to better understand? And having done so, what could I reasonably expect back? What—if he were really disgusted by me—would be the best possible outcome of such an encounter?
But I also wanted it to be free from any current political framework, and aliens are good for that.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this piece?
SG: I’ve always wanted to publish something in Analog. It’s got a history, and I want to be part of it. I feel a little weird about this being the piece though. I write a lot more fiction than poetry. But I’m also a ridiculously slow writer, and I have kids and a life right now that doesn’t allow me a lot of time. I had a story that came really close to making the cut, but then a long lapse where I didn’t have anything I thought would fit, and I just wanted to make sure I was still writing and submitting, so I fell back into poetry out of efficiency. I always thought of Analog as a place for writers who worked hard to construct the kind of scientifically plausible fiction that could pass an expert’s read. Hopefully, at some point, I can follow this up with one of those.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your writing?
SG: Science is one of the best mechanisms we have for understanding our universe. I love it. And tech. I’m an easily fascinated person and a quick study. But no, I’m not a scientist. I studied education. I got into it, though, in large part, for its enigmatic qualities—because it’s hard. The problem of untapped human potential is insanely complex, a moving target. It’s vital both to the individual and humanity at large, and the more you look at it, the more you understand that—despite our best efforts, despite the heroism and commitment of an army of teachers, some of our best minds—we aren’t even close. We’re overdue for some serious innovation. I’m no longer in a classroom teaching, but I’m always thinking about it. And it’s a theme that comes up in a lot of my work.
AE: Are there other themes that you find yourself returning to in your writing?
SG: I think a lot about what it means to be different, an outlier—that’s probably not surprising. I’m obsessed with perception and time—maybe because I struggle with it, for it—and I probably spend more of it thinking about Free Will than someone my age should. As an extension of all of that though, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how people exist within and interact with systems. I’m interested in the push and pull between individual and collectively held beliefs. I write a lot, directly or indirectly, about how and when people choose to put personal freedom over duty to the whole. I want to know how people and characters work the space between insider and outsider. About how cogs make space for other cogs and transform the machine. I’m always looking for agents of change. I suppose, with the rise of populism, a lot of artists are probably concerned with that kind of thing.
The problem of untapped human potential is insanely complex, a moving target. It’s vital both to the individual and humanity at large, and the more you look at it, the more you understand that—despite our best efforts, despite the heroism and commitment of an army of teachers, some of our best minds—we aren’t even close. We’re overdue for some serious innovation.
AE: How much do current events impact your writing?
SG: Indirectly, probably a lot. Whatever I’m thinking about makes its way in somehow, even if it’s just in tone, but I’m too slow to be topical. I live just a few miles from where we had the first COVID-19 deaths in the United States, but I have neither the instinct nor desire to churn out a pandemic novel while I’m holed up here. I’m two-and-a-half-weeks-deep coordinating distance learning, scaling up the home offices, and trouble-shooting changes in home inventory management and logistics. Current events impact productivity more than content. It’s a disruption of process.
AE: What is your process?
SG: Whatever works. I can’t maintain much of a practice because my schedule keeps changing. I try to write before I do anything else though, even if it’s just a little, because otherwise I might not do it at all and when I don’t, I’m horrible to be around. I’m hypervisual, so I usually start with an image—a character or scene—because that part’s fairly effortless. I don’t have to think about it. It just happens. If I’m writing a poem, that may be all I need. If it’s going to be something else, I can build out from there. Extrapolate the world from the scene—I think in scenes—drop in the character, and see what they do. Once the character’s there, they kind of do their own thing. The rest of writing is just mitigating and managing my inner editor, who unchecked devolves into some sort of self-sabotaging chaotic-evil monster. Terrible.
AE: Are you currently working on any other projects?
SG: I am nearly finished editing the sci-fi novel I’ve been working on forever. I built out a short story from an early draft of it for Asimov’s a ways back. I’ve also written a few scenes related to a piece that’ll be included in the Best American Experimental Writing 2020 anthology this summer. That could end up being a book. And I’m halfway through a short story about a guy on a massive scouting ship that’s part of a—what increasingly looks like, failed—mission to a planet humans had hoped to colonize. He’s currently battling a sense of purposelessness job-wise, dread over making a life-changing decision with his partner, and the feeling that the tiny iridescent creatures in his quadrant are trying to tell him something. Death stalks the mission, quadrant by quadrant. That feels relevant. Hopefully I can get through it soon. I also really want to start a new media project. I used to coedit a literary journal—did it for ten years—and I miss it. But that’s probably on indefinite hold, like everything else right now.
AE: What are you reading right now?
SG: I’m at a transition point! I just finished Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, who wrote my favorite How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and worked on some episodes of Westworld that I love. I also finally wrapped up Nancy Kress’s Beggars Trilogy. I’d read the first one a long time ago and loved it so much I sort of hesitated to continue, but the second one was the perfect for me just now, at this point in history. It would make a hell of a TV series. I will totally write it, if anyone wants to hire me for that. “Call me a patriot.”
I just got Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, the third of her Ravicka novels, which I am slowly and mindfully moving through. They manage to feel both surprising and familiar on every page-turn. I don’t know how she does it. But I’m usually reading more than one book at once, so if anyone wants to recommend something to me, please post in the comments! I’m always looking for something obscure.