A giant Pacific octopus, aquarium visitors with their camera flashes activated, and a twist on John Campbell’s criteria for hard science fiction walk into
a bar Analog’s March/April issue [on sale now!]. Once inside, thanks to author Meg Pontecorvo, they combine to form “Flash Mob.” All jokes aside, Meg chatted with us about this story’s genesis, her love of geology, N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, and trusting her unconscious mind. Read on!
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
MP: “A spark of inspiration”—that’s a great metaphor for the inciting moment of “Flash Mob”! I live in San Francisco and love to take road trips down the coast to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And one of my favorite creatures there is the giant Pacific octopus; the Aquarium always has one, and sometimes two, on display. They often hide in the crevices of their tank rocks, leaving only a tentacle visible to viewers. But when active, the octopus will shift colors and jet through the water or attach itself to the glass and slide across—mesmerizing. The viewing area in front of the tank is lit low, and there are signs posted telling visitors not to use the flash function on their phones when taking pictures, because the octopus is light-sensitive and flash-averse. Sometimes a volunteer even stands in front of the tank, answering questions about the octopus, but also explicitly warning people to turn off the flash. But people do it anyway. It’s maddening.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
MP: Apart from being incensed when people carelessly flash cephalopods?! I make my living as a university teacher, and I share Emilia’s aversion to academic politics and difficulty networking. I also understand her struggle to balance a fierce devotion to research with family life.
AE: What is your history with Analog?
MP: Even with so many high-quality science fiction stories available now on the internet, I’m still a dedicated reader of Analog (and of Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction), as I was in the years before the online fiction boom. These magazines were, and still are, genre-defining for me, and helped me learn about what makes a good short story. I’m therefore thrilled to have a story featured in Analog, although technically my first “appearance” in here was a recommendation of my novella, Murder in the Generative Kitchen, in the December 2016 “Reference Library” as a gift choice that would appeal not only to genre nerds, but also to their family and friends who don’t ordinarily read science fiction.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
MP: With “Flash Mob,” I aimed to work within the basic criteria John Campbell set for hard science fiction: a core element must be a scientist main character with a problem to solve, and that problem has to drive the plot (“no science, no story”). But I also wanted to twist the criteria by making the scientist-protagonist a young single mother, for whom childcare and the demands of motherhood are just as challenging as the scientific problem. While I’m not sure whether Campbell would have accepted “Flash Mob” for Astounding, I thought the story would be a great candidate for Analog, especially to reflect of how our understanding of “scientist”—especially who qualifies as one—has changed since Campbell’s era.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
MP: In high school, I fell in love with geology, due to the inspiration of two wonderful teachers, who not only taught courses on the subject but took students on summer field study trips in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I went to college with the aim of majoring in geology, and continued to take classes in the subject, but couldn’t hack the math requirements and thus majored in English instead. But the interest in geology has never waned; before I moved to San Francisco, I even poured over geological maps to determine which neighborhood (or blocks!) would be safest for an apartment rental—and then realized that the safest areas were the hills, which were high-rent districts due to the views, and thus unattainable for me. I’ve not yet tried to write a story based on geology, but writing science fiction gives me the chance to merge my interests in science and in literature, and to research the science behind a story.
I find myself consistently focusing on characters struggling to come to terms with change in their lives—often change resulting from an unexpected cause, such as a death, or betrayal, or sudden loss of a way of life. I wrote poetry before switching genres to science fiction, and these themes dominated my poems, too. But I also think that they’re common to protagonists of SF stories: as emotional, inner challenges that need to be worked through in a story . . .
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
MP: Because I love geology, I was fascinated by how N. K. Jemisin works with it in The Broken Earth trilogy. She says in the “Afterword” to The Fifth Season that the series was inspired by her stint at the NASA funded Launch Pad workshop, and she spent a lot of time researching seismology in preparation for writing the books. Although the world she builds in those novels would be a dangerous place to live, I’m fascinated by the concept of people—orogenes—having the ability to “sess” rocks and channel seismic energy. Although the books are fantasy, rather than SF, and depict a cruel society that enslaves and stigmatizes the orogenes, I nonetheless found the world Jemisin builds one that I would like to experience—though perhaps at the end of the series, when there’s hope for orogenes to live in harmony with non-orogenes. Jemisin’s books reminded me of what a tactile science geology is—especially her descriptions of how the orogenes feel geological processes. Their ability to read those processes evokes geologists’ experiential understanding of the locations they study—and also the pleasure geologists take in something as simple as touching rocks.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
MP: I find myself consistently focusing on characters struggling to come to terms with change in their lives—often change resulting from an unexpected cause, such as a death, or betrayal, or sudden loss of a way of life. I wrote poetry before switching genres to science fiction, and these themes dominated my poems, too. But I also think that they’re common to protagonists of SF stories: as emotional, inner challenges that need to be worked through in a story, and those inner struggles are often incited by the external challenges—the major life changes—the characters face. In one of the introductions to his The Road to Science Fiction anthologies, James Gunn proposes change as a defining component of science fiction:
Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of changes on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger.
Although he goes on to reject this definition as too general (and I agree with that assessment), as a science fiction writer, I like the idea of linking a character’s internal efforts to come to terms with change with her external struggle to solve a scientific problem or deal with the effects of scientific or technological change in her life. Intertwining these dimensions of a story can give it emotional depth and intensity—which isn’t easy to achieve, but something I strive for.
AE: What is your process?
MP: Although I don’t write at a desk, if I had one I would post the following quotation by James Michener at eye-level: “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s greatest rewriters.” This description, for me, is both heartening and accurate. Heartening, because I find writing first drafts a struggle—not in the research and plotting (those are the fun parts)—but in getting a full first draft done in the first place, by which I mean not slowing down too much to revise as I go or fuss over the draft’s overall sloppiness. The significant progress comes with multiple revisions of the first full draft, especially after I let it sit long enough to identify problems (with the help of writer friends, individually or in a critique group). I’ve also learned to trust my unconscious mind; figuring out how to fix problems is just as likely to happen when I’m not actively writing, but instead when I’m taking a walk, or swimming laps (pre-Covid), or early in the morning, when I wake up after letting myself “sleep on it.”
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
MP: As a teacher, more significant for me than writer’s block is the lack of time to write. I swing between having summers free, during which I can get into a steady writing groove, but then have to put the writing on hold when the semester starts, because teaching is all-consuming. The one benefit to this situation is that when I let work-in-progress sit, for weeks or months at a time, then I can look at it with fresh eyes and revise. But during the academic year, I’m envious of writer friends with “normal jobs” who can leave work behind during weekends or evenings to write!
AE: What are you reading right now?
MP: I’m currently reading Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels, and discovering that eels are as weird and enigmatic as cephalopods. I also like how Svensson mixes genres, weaving scientific information about eels with autobiography (his experiences fishing for eels with his father), science history (Sigmund Freud as an eel researcher?!), and cultural history and mythology about eels.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
MP: For updates and contact information, see my rather spare website: http://megpontecorvo.com/
I also post books read, and occasional reviews, on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7233672.Meg_Pontecorvo
My novella, Murder in the Generative Kitchen, is available from World Weaver Press, and from the usual sites like Amazon: https://www.worldweaverpress.com/store/p111/Murder_in_the_Generative_Kitchen.html