I’ve been familiar with Minnesota author Shale Nelson’s writing for a few years now, so it was no surprise to me that a short story of his was honored by a major anthology, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. His writing spans prose, poetry, and various destinations in between, but no matter what the style or subject there is always a trickster element to his fiction. We took some time to talk about what is going on behind the scenes of all of this.
T. A. Wardrope (TCG): So, you’ve got a story honored by this anthology. What’s the backstory for this?
Shale Nelson: “Pay Phobetor” came out in the December 2014 issue of Lightspeed magazine and was selected as a Notable Story in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I was stoked when Lightspeed picked it up, because it’s a cool publication, and the online format allows it to get around a lot faster and wider than a print magazine. It’s one of the first things I’ve had published, so it was encouraging to get some recognition in a respected best-of list.
The story came about when my sister’s computer was compromised by a ransomware virus a couple years ago. That’s a modern horror story in itself—a faceless criminal holding hostage work projects, financial information, family photos, et cetera, until you pay up. I had been writing some brain-implant stories at that time, so I started to think about what that particular type of crime would look like when the gap between our minds and our computers has essentially vanished.
I don’t think the general population will be any more tech savvy in the future than we are today. The hero of “Pay Phobetor” downloads one shady-sounding program after another into his MindPlant, despite the warnings. When brain implants are commonplace, most of us will have no clue how they actually work—we’ll just use them, like we use all this stuff today. With cell phones, computers, the Internet, and so much of technology, our daily lives are dependent upon things we don’t understand. That places a scary amount of power in the hands of those who do understand. My story explores that power.
My sister didn’t pay, by the way, and eventually prevailed and got her information back, so the real-life story has a happy ending at least. Screw you, ransomware dude! And thanks for the story idea.
TCG: What’s the elevator pitch for “Pay Phobetor”?
Shale: A man’s brain implant is attacked by a power-hungry ransomware virus. Hilarity ensues!
It’s on the darker side, with some horror elements. It’s written in the second person, so it puts the reader in the shoes of the victim. I like to think that gives it the feel of a video game or theme-park ride or something like that—an experience rather than just something you passively read. Lightspeed created a cool audio version of the story that heightens the effect. I recommend people listen to it with the lights turned off.
TCG: There’s a deep streak of humor, or at least satire, in your writing. I think this is part of what makes your work fresh, but what is the role of humor in a genre than can be as humorless as near-future science fiction? There’s a lot of very earnest work out there.
Shale: I’ve always been drawn to dark humor. In the ’80s, my brother and I would stay up late on school nights and watch David Letterman when he was still gleefully subversive and absurd. I was involved in theater for many years, and darkly comic playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter still hold influence over me. Then there’s film in the ’90s, with Tarantino’s early work and the Coen brothers. And Seinfeld, Jerry Springer, Monica and Bill . . . man, the ’90s were really just ten years of nonstop dark comedy.
In the realm of science fiction, I’m always relieved to find some humor in a story, although it isn’t always appropriate or necessary. Take a hard sci-fi writer like Stephen Baxter, for instance, a guy who really knows his science. There might be some humor in his stories, but the real appeal is the ideas and the scope of his scientific imagination. I have no formal science background whatsoever, so I put some funny stuff in my stories instead.
Many of the futures I see on the page and in film are quite dreary with the dystopian societies, reality-TV-inspired death matches and monochromatic, one-piece outfits. I like to call them jumpsuitopias. When I wrote the novella Parish Jeppa Goes Wrong, I decided that insane, flamboyant people who like dressing up would still play a role in the future. It’s dystopia lite, you might call it, where many of my stories tend to land.
Humor can make your story and your message, if you have one, more digestible. I recently picked up this graphic novel called Borb by Jason Little. It’s about this homeless guy who gets into these crazy situations: He gets false teeth. Dogs piss on him. He loses his pants. He gets drunk a lot. It was super funny, but by the end I was really feeling the plight of this guy and seeing the humanity in homeless people in a way I hadn’t before. No preachy article or Facebook post about “how you should feel about [insert topic]” had ever held this power over me, but this crazy, hilarious comic did. So, yeah, humor can be powerful.
TCG: What is most exciting in science fiction right now, literary or otherwise?
Shale: My favorite sci-fi novels of the last couple years have been Lexicon by Max Barry and Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance (the Southern Reach trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer. They are both what you might call soft science fiction, I guess. But what I like is that the stories, the characters, and the prose, especially, do not take a backseat to the science. I’ve read (or at least started to read) countless stories where the scientist is going off on a mission to an exotic planet, and his backstory is that he kisses his wife goodbye before the launch. Whoa, now I really care what happens! I think those elements should be baked into the story, as much as possible, rather than merely tacked on.
Prose is important to me, and often overlooked in science fiction. I appreciate when writers put some artistry into their sentences and paragraphs. We are going on a journey together . . . let’s make it an enjoyable one. Play some nice music. Slow down past the pretty scenery. Some of these literary sci-fi writers, like Barry and VanderMeer, give us the best of both worlds: beautiful prose, compelling characters, and the speculative elements that make science fiction so much fun.
TCG: So, let’s talk about “transhumanism.” The word has been rattling about for over a decade now, and we’ve seen considerable change in the world of technology, in physics, and even in our understanding of the basic structure of the universe in that time. Have we entered into post-transhumanism? Are we so deep into the transhuman that we don’t even have a connection to whatever it was we were transitioning out of? Are we the cyborgs we worried so much about?
I think we are in the infancy of a process that will eventually see some portion of humanity completely melded with machines. Today, it is still mostly external, with our smartphones and laptops constant companions. But you don’t have to look hard to find an amputee with a bionic arm that is ten times more powerful than a real arm, or a blind person who is being allowed to see, even if just a little, with the help of an implant. It’s easy to extrapolate from these advances and look into a future when implants, artificial body parts, and exoskeletons make for superhumans, or something other than human.
I say “some portion of humanity” because I believe there will be holdouts who shun technology in favor of the pure human form. I hope these people will exist, anyway, because they are the heroes of some of my stories.
Most of my near-future tales take place in what you might call the adolescence of transhumanism. Sharp lines have emerged between the linked and the unlinked, between “machine heads” and the Luddites of the future, but there are no full-on cyborgs yet. It should prove interesting.
TCG: What’s on the horizon? Tell us about your long-form projects.
I’m writing new stuff. I’ve got some short stories in the pipeline, some sci fi and some fantasy. Fighting the good fight in the slush piles of the world. Self-publishing when I feel a project deserves the time and energy. There’s a novel rattling around in my head, but I’m not sure if I’ll start writing it in a month or in two years. I’ll keep you posted.
Learn more about Shale Nelson and his work at ShaleNelson.com.