Leaving the “beaten path” of SF: the ideas behind Tricia Sullivan’s novels

Recently I was one of the Guests of Honour at Eastercon alongside George R. R. Martin, Cory Doctorow, and Paul Cornell.  During the course of the weekend a number of people came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never heard of you before,’ or ‘I’m not familiar with your work,’ and I had to sadly admit that most of my novels are out of print, hard to find. 

Well, I’m delighted to announce that this situation has changed!  Orbit UK have just released Maul, Double Vision, Sound Mind and Lightborn as e-books.  I’d like to offer a few informal thoughts about the books to celebrate their e-release.

In science fiction it’s conventional to set the action in the future, but I set all of these books apart from Maul in the near past.  (Maul is set in the crack between things, neither here nor there.)  I chose the past deliberately because I wanted to make it clear that the books aren’t about the future, but about a specifically skewed version of the more-or-less present.  I use imaginary technology as a means of illuminating or extending some aspect of human nature—which is itself seen as a work in progress.

The first two of these novels were written in the spirit of a particle-collider; I shot disparate things into a tube, forcing them to smash together and reveal their internal workings. In Maul, I test-crashed the classic ‘world without men’ narrative with a more contemporary story centring on armed teenaged girls shopping a New Jersey mall. In Double Vision I forced an extra-planetary war into a head-on collision with contemporary call-centre marketing in 1984—the age of Zork. The Big Brother of Double Vision is actually a big sister who is confronted by her own power to watch TV and make it real.

Sound Mind is the sequel to Double Vision, but I started writing it first, as a personal response to what I’d seen on TV a few months prior, on September 11th 2001.  I was interested in the symbolism of the attacks on the twin towers, both in their collapse and the national response to that collapse, and also in the thought processes that had led to the event. I started exploring the idea of symbols and ideas acquiring a life and mind independent of their creators, choosing as the centre of the apocalyptic action the smallest and most intimate laboratory I could think of: my alma mater, BardCollege. Music is at the centre of the book.

Double Vision concerned itself with the permeability of the membrane between TV and RL, and as it turned out, its ending handed me on a plate the Sound Mind protagonist in younger form: she’d been created on another planet in the mind of Double Vision’s protagonist Cookie Orbach before being transported into 1980s New Jersey as a ‘real’ person.  And something else had followed her through: a menace that originated in pure ideation. Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science was an influence here.  Thinking about emergent systems also brought me to Lightborn, which is about a consciousness-altering technology that develops the capacity to act as a personal god.  In certain respects, Lightborn is written with the view that it’s only about half an inch away from the contemporary United States.

At a fundamental level, all of these novels concern themselves with consciousness.

I wrote these books to be stimulating and challenging, but for many readers they are probably not easy. My anti-authoritarian streak emerges not just in the subject matter I choose, but also in the way I write.  I work in the hope that the reader will bring her or his own preoccupations and interpretations to the table, and I’ve tried to open a collaborative space in which the meaning of every little thing is not dictated by me.  This indeterminism can be frustrating for some.  Of course, the concepts I’m working with can be elusive in their own right.    

Maul  was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award, and was also a Tiptree Honour book.  It’s been translated into several languages.  SFX called it ‘A fiercely intelligent look at gender politics and consumer psychology,’ and Vector wrote, ‘This is one of the standout novels of the year, with perhaps the strongest, most eloquent, depiction of the microbiological world you will find.  This book is much more than it first appears.’ Justina Robson in her review said, ‘I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.’

Double Vision and Sound Mind can stand alone, but I would recommend reading them together to get the full effect.  The most perceptive review I’ve seen was L. Timmel Duchamp’s piece at Strange Horizons.

Lightborn was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA.  The Times said ‘This is gripping, thought-provoking speculation, populated with gritty, believable characters and a storyline that moves in surprising directions’  and the Guardian wrote, ‘Sullivan is brilliant at presenting convincing near-future scenarios peopled by heart-breakingly real characters… and leaves the explication of the technology in the background while concentrating on the human consequences of its malfunction. Recommended.’

So if you’ve been curious about my work, or if you’re a science fiction reader interested in going a little off the beaten track, then please do click through and pick up a title or two. I will be putting up samples and other bits and pieces on my blog in the coming weeks, so if you’re curious you can drop by my website or follow me; I’m @trishsullivan68 on Twitter.