C.L. Kagmi is a former scientist who traded in her lab coat for the literary life. We spoke with her about her inspirations, her research background, and how she believes SF writers are only just catching up to the great Octavia Butler. Check out Kagmi’s new story “Hostess” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
C.L. Kagmi: This story started as a thought experiment. Anastasia and Devi are almost the worst possible people to put in a room together.
Anastasia’s father lost friends in the discovery of Devi’s species. And that was after he’d already been excluded from the mission due to failing a psych eval. Devi, on the other hand, has nearly achieved sustainable harmony between her people and humanity. So of course something has to go wrong.
The conflict between humans and wraith spans worlds, and the two species have very different, and very complementary strengths and weaknesses. It’s a piece of out-of-story trivia, for example, that Devi’s people never invented fire; but genetic engineering was a simple science for species with their biology.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
CLK: So many of my stories revolve around moral complexity, and challenging our own assumptions.
How can we be sure that our own “in group” is in the right? That’s a question that bothers me constantly. I’m of the opinion that the only way we can avoid acting blindly is to continue to challenge our assumptions and question if we’re right about the way things must be in the face of new information.
For that reason, I keep writing scenarios which explore situations where the moral outcome isn’t obvious. In more than a few of my stories, I myself started out assuming that our viewpoint character was the “good guy,” only to be forced to reconsider later.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
CLK: Honestly, I share Devi’s intense pragmatism at times. Throughout the stories she appears in, she is only trying to preserve her people in the face of a fearful humanity.
I sometimes feel that humans can be our own worst enemies. It’s not uncommon for us to reject good things out of suspicion, or because our preconceptions tell us that the good thing is impossible. I saw a sad amount of that when working in clinical research, where it was not uncommon to see lay people argue that better health and safety outcomes were not possible simply because they hadn’t been achieved here in the U.S. yet.
Our whole job was to find ways to save and extend life, but we were often greeted with skepticism by folks who believed the measures we recommended would actually be harmful, or that they were part of a hidden agenda.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
CLK: Most of my published short stories to date are part of a shared universe. I’m not going to tell you which ones, because not all of the connections are obvious and it’s more fun that way.
There are several novels in progress in the space between Devi’s first appearance in Twiceborn and her appearance in Hostess, which will cover all of the events briefly mentioned in this story in much greater detail. Another previous story of mine hints at the origin of another faction mentioned in Hostess. I’ll let you figure out which one that is.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
CLK: I grew up on a strange blend of Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, and Greg Bear.
Butler has been a huge influence on the way I approach designing my aliens. I don’t think anyone was doing it as well as she was in Xenogenesis. I’m of the opinion that no one at that time thought through the differences that alien biology and psychology were capable of more thoroughly, or executed them more convincingly. We are just now beginning to catch up to her.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
CLK: I’d like to see a post-scarcity world. There’s absolutely no technological reason why we can’t have one. The only thing stopping us is our psychology. And that, I hope, we can change.
AE: What are you reading right now?
CLK: I am very much enjoying Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station. It’s like the bastard lovechild of Cowboy Bebop and a Greg Bear thriller and I love it.
I’d like to see a post-scarcity world. There’s absolutely no technological reason why we can’t have one. The only thing stopping us is our psychology. And that, I hope, we can change.
AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?
CLK: My bachelor’s degree is in neuroscience, and that also drives a lot of my alien design. I studied the subject because I wanted to learn more about the hardware of perception and emotion.
It’s also the reason I don’t yet write about AI very much; we haven’t even begun to do justice to what is possible with biological nervous systems. Devi’s species is a major avenue for me to explore this, as they use a lot of the same weird genetic and developmental tricks observed in aquatic life on Earth. And then some.
AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?
CLK: I worked in a series of biomedical research laboratories and as a clinical research coordinator before becoming a freelance writer. That formative training affects me a lot.
I had a glorious science mentor, one Dr. Carey, who schooled me in uncompromising loyalty to data accuracy and good research methods in the search for truth. He wouldn’t be satisfied by anything less than experimental proof of an idea. I had to repeat an experiment or two because an unexpected result triggered a whole new round of investigations to determine why we got the unexpected data point.
I have a great deal of trust in government-funded public health experts, having spent nine years seeing firsthand how they operate, what their incentives are, how they are paid, etc.
Nobody goes into government-funded health research to get rich—it doesn’t pay enough for that, so these folks are primarily motivated by helping people and saving lives. No study gets government funding without first being reviewed by a panel of independent, competing scientists who try as hard as they can to poke holes in it and find any potential problems with bias or data accuracy in the study design.
I wish I could say the same for private industry, for-profit clinical research, but another thing my research career taught me is how dangerous profit motive can be. Private parties can rarely profit directly from the health and longevity of other people, so those goals are not usually among their primary incentives when they’re making business decisions.
All of that definitely comes through in my writing. I have a profound belief in the willingness of people to dedicate their lives to helping others, but also a profound suspicion of any entity that’s operating with financial profit as their primary metric for success.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
CLK: My website is CLKagmi.com. There you can read my blog and learn about my other stories, including others set in this universe. A recent collection of my science fiction stories, “Twiceborn,” is available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Links can be found on my site.