Exploring Postcolonial Prejudice and Ecology through Science Fiction

An Interview with Stephanie Saulter

• June 2022

Stephanie Saulter is a Jamaican author of science fiction who studied at MIT and has lived in London for many years. As a scholar of Caribbean literature, I sought Ms. Saulter’s thoughts on how her Caribbean background has informed her creative writing, her fiction’s treatment of environmental issues, and her resisting the lure of the well-worn—perhaps too worn—trope of the hero’s journey. Her Revolution trilogy, which imagines a future in which genetically modified humans struggle for their rights, was published from 2013 to 2015.1 She has since been working on a book that she describes as having more prominently Caribbean and folkloric aspects than her previous work.

This interview was conducted via Zoom on 27 August 2021.

 

D. A. Vivian: Would you mind walking me through a bit of your journey to becoming a science fiction writer?

Stephanie Saulter: Well, I have to say that none of my past was designed to end up with me being a science fiction writer; that happened very much by accident. I was one of those very precocious readers as a child, so I read everything, but growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1970s meant reading whatever came to hand. There isn’t generally in the Caribbean a firm divide between genre [fiction] and literature as a whole, or at least there wasn’t when I was child, so I didn’t make those demarcations. I mean, I read The Iliad when I was nine, and that was just a slightly different flavor of fantastical literature from Lord of the Rings.

But I was also very academic, very interested in the sciences. I ended up going to study in America at MIT, which was a saga in itself because I was going to be a biologist. And so that’s what I started studying, and what has been left to me of that is an abiding interest in the life sciences and genetics. But I decided partway through studying for my undergraduate degree that I didn’t want to be a research scientist after all [laughs]. I’d been taking lots of literature and anthropology courses and other liberal arts courses already, so I basically pivoted to that and graduated with a degree in humanities, but with a really strong grounding in biology and molecular chemistry, and genetics in particular.

DAV: Some of the characters in your Revolution trilogy have a Caribbean feel to them, and your novels generally feature a great deal of diversity. I am curious to what extent you feel that your Caribbean background, with this rich multiculturality, has informed and continues to inform your writing?

SS: Hugely. I’ve been living in the UK, mostly in London, and so the books are based here, but the gems [genetically modified humans] are essentially the descendants of slavery. That’s a very direct parallel for me. I think the parallels are social and cultural and historical because that was a history that I was drawing on. What does it mean to come into existence as a being who has been commodified and only understood in terms of your financial value?

DAV: And instrumental purpose. Use-value.

SS: Exactly that. And whose humanity is questioned, who’s not understood as truly human but who nevertheless is in that position because you’re presumed to have abilities and capabilities that the more dominant demographic in society doesn’t have. And that’s the history of the transatlantic slave trade, the presumption that “Oh, these are people who can do things we can’t do. Let’s enslave and abuse them for it.”

I think it’d be too obvious to say that I wanted to retell that story, because it’s not that, but that is my history. And the challenges that come out of it, and what it means to make your way in the world as individuals and as a people in the context of a society that’s embarrassed about its past abuses and failures, but arguably not embarrassed enough to actually want to fix them properly [laughs]. But one of the things I’m also very conscious of, and it’s particularly present for me as a mixed-race but light-skinned Caribbean person, is the way in which dominant cultures often regard the minority groups as monolithic—Muslims are . . . ; African Americans are . . . ; disabled people are . . . —without taking into account that everyone is an individual and all these aspects are intersectional.

So it was very important for me that for the most part the gems are all different from each other and not just different from the norms.

DAV: One aspect I was musing on was this interesting turn as the trilogy goes on where the marginalized gems become kind of chic—they become the shiny, new, popular thing. And you can see a similar thing with Black culture, at least in the United States. These people were so marginalized that they couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountains seventy years ago. And now they have such an outsized role in culture.

SS: That’s exactly where I was going with that. Binary [the second novel in the trilogy] was where I really started to look at that. I spent many years in America, and it’s much the same in the UK. In terms of Jamaica, there’s a completely outsized impact on the rest of the world through music and athletics. When I was a child, the kids who had to run for miles to school and run miles to bring the harvest home were the poor kids who were not considered privileged in any way, but they were also the ones who got talent-scouted at sports day, and who end up on a track at the Olympics, who end up becoming icons. And I’m obviously summarizing very broadly there, but you get the idea.

That ability comes out of a legacy of hardship and necessity and of having to do certain things to survive. And the discipline that turns that into a compelling talent. It’s the same thing with music and Bob Marley. He’s someone who ended up becoming a global icon, the pinnacle of celebrity, on the back of writing songs and singing about incredible hardship and discrimination.

DAV: Yeah, that’s really the crux of what I wanted to get at. Since these novels have been published, the Black Lives Matter movement, both in the US and the UK, has had such a large impact. I can’t help but wonder, as I read these novels, knowing they came out some six to eight years ago, if you’re troubled by how these parallels continue in terms of the racialized, xenophobic discourse toward the gems. We see the same thing with migrants, with people of color . . .

SS: You know, I’m troubled but not at all surprised. A lot of people here, mostly people not as steeped in the histories of the Caribbean and America, saw an analogy of immigration because that was the big conversation at the time, or around Muslims and religious persecution. But I also have a fanbase here in the trans and gay communities, trans in particular. Trans friends and readers and critics see parallels to their stories here. This all reaffirms to me that the oppression of the marginalized is the same kit of parts in terms of social psychology that’s imposed on different groups at different times in different places, ostensibly for different reasons, but, ultimately, it’s the same construct.

And it’s completely repetitive. In a weird way, the most hopeful thing I have to say about it is the image that Gemsigns [the first novel in the trilogy] opens with, the image of the spiral. Maybe we’re not ending up back in the same place, maybe each time we’re moving forward a little bit, but we’re not getting there in a straight line.

DAV: Your trilogy does feature these neurodivergent and LGBTQ characters. So, despite being set in the future, this kind of representation makes your novels feel quite relevant in terms of current issues. Has it felt rewarding to have people in the LGBTQ community respond positively to your work?

SS: Hugely. It feels like such an unexpected blessing, as well as a privilege to some extent. Because I’m neither trans nor LGBT, I’m not sure I would have presumed to think I could write something for that community. Having been able to do that simply by doing what I was doing anyway, I’m very humbled by that, but it’s also reassuring that I’ve not done it wrong [laughs].

DAV: As far as literary antecedents, readers might think of Frankenstein or Brave New World when reading the trilogy. Were there any literary forebears in particular that inspired you?

SS: You know, not really. I read Brave New World a long time ago, along with The Chrysalids and Dune, a lot of those classic texts. And, of course, Frankenstein, because the central point is that the monster isn’t really the monster. Or that he’s only a monster because someone else was a monster first. And that’s something that I certainly wanted to pick up on because my writing was about how damage perpetuates.

But I think I was partly prompted to write because of what I wasn’t reading. For a long time, the science fiction I read, or that seemed to be available, was very much the mechanistic, space-based kind, which also sort of denigrated the life sciences and social sciences. I was prompted more by biomedical and social science fiction that I wasn’t seeing. I’d also been thinking about how much the world was changing within my adult lifetime in terms of the internet and social media, as well as thinking about genetics and evolution and the fact that we live in a world that we didn’t evolve for. And we seem to be coping, but . . . how would we know? [laughs]

DAV: There’s a sustainability aspect that really comes to the fore by the third novel, Regeneration, with the hydroelectric turbines developed and overseen by the gillungs [an amphibious subspecies of gem]. I was curious to what extent it was important for you to address ecological concerns and also this prospect of a kind of reverse ecoterrorism, where multinational conglomerates would sink to sabotage to bring down this innovative, sustainable tech that challenges their own bottom line.

SS: I think “reverse ecoterrorism” is a good way of putting it. But what I did with that was to simply make overt and violent something that we know already happens—there were more revelations earlier this year, for example, about the mass lobbying that the big fossil-fuel companies do, the degree to which they’ve rubbished climate change science, the degree to which everything is subservient to the profitable status quo.

But coming up with the gillungs was also a recognition that this would be a world with more sea. So there would have been a commercial imperative to create the gillungs as an amphibious subspecies. But by the time I got to Regeneration it was partly thematic. I wanted to do more with them. They were the only gems I created who form a recognizable subgroup within the larger group. That always creates an interesting dynamic because you have the strength of the group and its sense of community, but it also provides a target. And the gillungs are the most obvious form of that shift because they’re capable of exploiting an aquatic environment, which they were created to exploit, but now they’re doing it for their own reasons. They’re brilliant engineers, and I did want to think about sustainability and the energy crisis. I thought again that part of the underlying theme of the whole trilogy is that things are cyclical. I asked myself, What would the next energy revolution be?

DAV: In terms of resources, a somewhat curious ecological fact is that due to population density, cities have the potential to be much more environmentally efficient than rural populations. I’m curious—do you think sci-fi can allow us to reimagine urban life for a more sustainable future?

SS: I think it could. I think it should. I don’t think it does it nearly enough. And I do think writers are missing a trick in terms of the potential to explore that, but I do suspect it comes out of a binary kind of thinking where we somehow equate environment and sustainability with wide green open spaces and not with the very dense urban metropole.

In Gemsigns I did include the idea of people having to recycle and repurpose in the Squats [the gem community housing] with the rooftop gardens. It’s probably because they’re outcasts and they have no resources, and because they’re living in a world that’s still recovering from catastrophe so there aren’t a lot of shiny new resources lying around, but it’s also what poor people do wherever they live. You don’t just throw something away. You find a way to repurpose it. And that I think is something that isn’t explored enough in an urban context.

DAV: Ursula K. Le Guin explores a dichotomy in her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which stories generally draw from either a masculine-hunter tradition or a feminine-gatherer tradition, with the former consisting of the epic hero’s journey and the latter more readily lending itself to reality than pure myth.2 Any thoughts on this distinction?

SS: I’ve read a lot of that hunter side of science fiction, and that was part of what I wasn’t interested in reading. I would say I’m much more on the carrier bag side, where life is not just the strong hero and the obstacles he has to face and overcome. You could strip stories back to that, but to me the complexity is what makes the hero interesting. And it’s what complicates the obstacles and antagonists. I don’t find it particularly compelling to strip all of that away and pretend it doesn’t exist in a way that a lot of that dominant literature does.

We are social creatures. If you ignore that web of connection you are missing a lot of the beauty of being human and existing within culture, but you’re also missing the drivers that are both cause and cure for so many of the issues that we contend with.

DAV: I’m curious what you think about this idea of miraculous hero/savior figures or technological breakthroughs when it comes to the environment.

SS: I’m deeply suspicious of it for several reasons. I think it avoids doing the work, fundamentally. Like with Le Guin’s dichotomy, it’s this pure vision of a single person, invention, event, etc., that somehow is going to cut through the knot and fix everything, and I don’t think that’s true. And I think at a very deep level it shows up in literature a lot, not just in environmental and social issues, but it’s the stableboy who turns out to be the prince and who has access to the magic sword that’s going to save the kingdom. It’s that kind of “one true person” trope. A lot of it ties back into these ideas that someone else will take care of you—there’s a supernatural being, an aristocracy personified by the true king or queen, there is something out there that will manifest itself and take care of the messy business of life. That is simply not true. So I’m suspicious of it in both life and in fiction.


 

D. A. Vivian is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is currently completing his dissertation on environmental issues in Caribbean literature.

 


[1] Gemsigns (2013), Binary (2014), and Regeneration (2015) were published by Jo Fletcher Books in London.

[2] Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986), in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove, 1989), 165–70.