T. Aaron Cisco in a local writer, filmmaker and geek trivia maven. His latest novella, Teleportality, was brought to my attention, and given our mutual experiences with both prose and film I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some digging into life as a multimedia indie author. Teleportality packs a lot into its thin covers, much more so than many novels three times its size. Unsurprisingly, this short interview also has much to unpack, and I think we only touched the surface of he has on his mind. I am looking forward to finding out.
T. A. Wardrope (TCG): Tell us about Teleportality. Based on the description, you fit quite a bit into this novella of yours.
T. Aaron Cisco: Teleportality takes place sometime in the far future, in which Dr. Aaron Harvey has perfected a procedure called neurogenesis that enables people to be brought back to life and kept alive indefinitely. But what should’ve been the crowning achievement of mankind—curing death—has been corrupted by the government, which has made it illegal to die without expensive permits. When his wife is murdered, Dr. Harvey brings back a “woman” known only as Billy and grants her a number of extraordinary attributes and abilities to assist him in finding his wife’s killer and bringing down the government. In exchange, Dr. Harvey offers to help Billy find answers about her own past. While on an assignment that turns bad, Billy is forced to obliterate a patrol of enforcement officers, but when an enigmatic figure with even more extraordinary powers intervenes, incapacitating Billy and leading to her capture and exile, Billy finds herself transported not only through space but also time, having to team up with past and future versions of herself to try and find the truth.
At the core, Teleportality really is about finding where you fit in by confronting yourself. In my experience, people tend to lionize their future and demonize their past—but what if you were in a situation that forced you not only to interact with both iterations of yourself, but also to work with them in the physical space, not just psychologically? What if all we know isn’t what we know, but rather what we remember? Considering how malleable our memories are, can reality truly be defined? And if not, what does that mean?
TCG: What inspired you to write this book?
T. Aaron: Teleportality was 13 years in the making. Way back in the dark ages of 2003—we’re talking pre-Facebook, here—I was a part of the Chicago Filmmakers Co-Op, which was a really groovy little organization that was kind of like a live action YouTube. People would bring in clips of their shorts, films and videos, and they would be screened, sort of like an open mic for movies. I had written a minor character called “Billy Badass” as part of my (ridiculously bad) short film about an undead cannibal family fighting the mob. The short was garbage, but I loved the Billy character.
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when female characters had taken the forefront. In comics, I was a huge Tank Girl and Wonder Woman fan. And in the movies, it was characters like Ripley, Nikita, Alice from Resident Evil, Sarah Connor, and Buffy that I was drawn to. But the one thing I never got hip to was the tropes. Almost all the female characters at some point had to use sex appeal, or have a romantic interest, and I was like, “Wait, why can’t a lady just be a bad-ass?” So I decided to write a character who was awesome and cool and a wicked fighter, and had crazy weapons and even crazier villains but also depth and motivations, who didn’t have a love interest or have to rely on some femme fatale trope to get ahead.
Went I started my career in broadcasting, I wrote more than a few treatments and spec scripts to pitch around, culminating in a pitch meeting with a major network, which got me super excited . . . until they had some “notes” that completely undermined the whole essence of Billy. For example, Teleportality opens with Billy blazing though the city on her motorcycle, being chased by enforcement officers, crashing through freighter trucks and blowing up robots and vertical farms and shooting people in the face. That was lifted right out of the original pilot script, and the actual note from the developing producer—and I’ll never forget this—was, “Why can’t she have like a love scene in here?” Like, as she’s fighting for life, she meets a guy somewhere and then they get it on? I was dumbfounded. I mean, I tried to explain that she’s, you know, on a motorcycle, being chased and shot at. Maybe banging it out with some random dude isn’t crossing her mind at the moment. Also, she’s a reanimated dead person, so that would be kind of like necrophilia. Then they started harping on the violence—that Billy is too vicious in her dealing with the various enemies. And I asked if that would be an issue if Billy was a guy, and they were like, of course not.
With that reception, I sort of gave up on pushing Billy as a series directly and thought about coming up with a new approach. I started a wiki for Billy, with the thinking being that most fandoms have the media first, à la Memory Alpha or he TARDIS Data Core, then build a wiki as the show or movies progress. What if I wrote a wiki first, and developed the whole universe for these characters, and then took that to networks? The plus side was that I got to explore a lot more than if I’d just sat and wrote the story straight. If I didn’t feel like writing narrative, I could write about the tech, or the government, or the neurogenesis procedures. If I hit a dead end with Billy’s stories, I could pivot and write from the point of view of Dr. Harvey or other characters. It helped keep Billy alive for years.
Until just last year—I received interest from Amazon Studios, and pitched a (heavily modified) version of Billy, based on a side story from her background. They passed, and that was when I decided that Billy and her whole world have been a part of me for the overwhelming majority of my adult life. I’m not writing her for TV or movies; I’m writing her for me. And that’s when I decided to write Teleportality, to provide a medium in which I could share Billy with others without compromising who she is as a character and a concept.
TCG: This all makes perfect sense, and I think it’s a path many creatives are seeing as the only realistic way to get original stories out there. Did anyone suggest you turn this into a graphic novel or comic-book series?
T. Aaron: I’m a huge fan of comics, and I think Teleportality would lend itself really well to that medium. I would want something as distinctive—in terms of style and tone—as that of comic artists I really dig, like Todd McFarlane, Jamie Hewlett, Christopher Jones, Sam Keith, Keith Giffen, David Finch, et cetera. However, considering that I wouldn’t be able to pay much and that I have no direct connections or contacts within the graphic-novel community, it wasn’t an avenue I really explored.
TCG: Can you talk about the translations you needed to make to bring a screen story to the prose format? Things in your particular story that needed adjustments or changes.
T. Aaron: The most challenging aspect of transitioning from screenplay to prose was expanding the content to be more descriptive. When writing scripts, aside from dialogue and scene settings, you’re really only writing out things that can actually be seen or heard. With the format of book, there are more opportunities to demonstrate character motivations as well as the fact that exposition is expected. In the case of Teleportality specifically, moving from scripts, treatments, and proofs of concept to the book format was made far less challenging with the wiki approach. The (now defunct) wiki site was great middle step, to help move away from the structure of screenplay into a much more literary approach.
The hardest element to transition for Teleportality the novel was establishing the world in which all the events transpire. Adequately conveying the scope of the Association’s reach, the technological marvels, and the reality of living in this weird future in which death is an expensive privilege and how that impacts every detail of the lives of the people within it—without falling into pages and pages and pages of exposition—was hard. I had a lot of early drafts where I would joke that I was getting a bit Anne Rice with the work. And that’s not meant as a dig against Anne Rice; she’s brilliant. Just that I would write a chapter draft, then review it, and realize that it was pages and pages of adjectives that set the scene but didn’t advance the story. So then I’d go back and start deleting and rewriting.
To combat this, I borrowed inspiration from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, one of my all-time favorites; Masks by John Vornholt, a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel; Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction; and Michael Crichton’s Timeline, Congo, and A Case of Need. In all of those works, the greater world is suggested and hinted at, rather than outright explained and described at all times. I also loved how the authors in each of those examples would sort of invert the exposition so that it was more a character exploration. So early in Teleportality, when Billy is comparing the perfectly engineered lanes of the highway to a memory—that may or may not actually belong to her—of looking at the horizon over the ocean. Instead of just being a somewhat mundane simile, it’s helping to establish Billy’s psychological situation. At least that’s the intent.
TCG: Why didn’t you bring the film project to Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing platforms?
T. Aaron: Crowdsourcing, yeah. So I’m not opposed to crowdsourcing, I’m really not; it’s just in my experience it’s a lot more like lottery tickets. Like, people win the lottery all the time. Not just the big Powerball stuff, either—you go into a gas station or convenience store, and there will be pictures of the winners. So yes, literally, people do win the lotto, but I’ve never known anyone personally, who has, at least nothing more than a few bucks from those scratch tickets or whatever. Granted, most of the people I know also don’t play the lottery, but still.
I see crowdsourcing the same way. I started a few projects back when Kickstarter was getting popular in 2009, 2010, or whenever, but it never came to anything. Then those articles starting coming out came out a couple years ago about how fewer than half of the projects get funding, and that drops to around about 10 percent for the Kickstarter alternatives like Indiegogo. And then the other articles started coming out about how the more you spend on your crowdsourcing asks, the more likely you’ll receive contributions—which makes sense from a general business standpoint, but instead of spending a couple grand that I don’t have to spare on a video that has a 60-plus percent chance of failing to yield anything, I’d rather focus my efforts on creating.
TCG: What is your writing process like?
T. Aaron: I like to think that I write cinematically. That it’s not a complete story, but rather just a piece of a much larger reality, albeit a reality I’ve created. Sort of like telling a close friend you haven’t seen in a while about a really great vacation you had. You don’t give them the full, day-to-day rundown of your itinerary; you give enough background for context and give them the best parts, he most memorable, and you add your take on it as well. It’s never just, “We went to the beach, and there was sand, and the sand was hot, and the water was pretty.” It’s more like, “Well, it was a gorgeous day out, so we went down to the beach, but I forgot my flip-flops—you know how I’m always forgetting flip-flops—and the bottoms of my feet were screaming at me. So even though the ocean was like a friggin’ postcard, I couldn’t enjoy it.”
I also try to weave in real experiences and conversations. I mean, the whole premise of neurogenesis is based in my rampant interest in transhumanism and discussions I’ve had with friends about life extension. The whole notion of Billy arguing with another character, Feral, about how she’s not a woman but is a woman—in the same way a statue of a woman is a woman—that’s from numerous Reddit and Facebook discussions about gender and personal identity. Is who we are who we decide we are? Or are we merely reflections of others’ perceptions, like Cooley’s looking-glass self? (A fascinating read about external determining factors on identity development.)
My process isn’t unique, I don’t think, but it’s me. It’s taking myself and my interests and energies and experiences and translating that back through the pages of a (hopefully enjoyable) story. Consider music. I’ve been a musician since I was a kid, and expression through sound, to me, isn’t that much different from expression through fictional narrative. Like, I’m not an I–V–vi–IV progression in A minor, but rather this sequence of chords and melody is an expression of who I am or what I’m feeling.
TCG: So, how does transhumanism relate to Billy’s story. Is death a determining factor of being human?
T. Aaron: The concept of moving past our current, mortal limitations—and not in an idealistic sense, but rather a pragmatic, somewhat logical approach—sets the stage for the Association, which is the backdrop against which the entire story exists. I believe that if a real-life Aaron Harvey found a way to upgrade our biological components and extend life indefinitely, it would definitely lead to an Association-type governance structure. Considerations of housing and resources for an immortal populace would probably yield vertical farming, cutting ties with natural resources, expanding our footprint to the moon and Mars and Mars’s moons. And on the smaller scale, automating law enforcement and the establishment of strict social hierarchies, or rather taking the existing, somewhat subliminal caste structures and making them much more overt. Outlawing unsanctioned death might be a bit cynical, sure, but I see that as a logical narrative leap from our current laws in terms of euthanasia, assisted suicide, and, in some states, attempted suicide. In the real world right now, most states’ governments say you cannot die under your own volition, except for small loopholes—DNR clauses, for example—and that’s with a mortal populace. What if the same approach is taken when death is merely a medical option, rather than a natural inevitability, and the Association has the means to revive and prosecute those who violate an antideath law?
But this isn’t an antitranshumanist sentiment. The Association, as tyrannical as it seems, is really doing what’s best for the immortal populace. Don’t get me wrong—they’re definitely an antagonist in the story—but they’re not the “bad guys” per se. What I’ve done with Billy, though, is introduce a character who moves even further beyond transhumanism. Billy wasn’t a life extended but rather a life ended, brought back much later and then further augmented. If humanity is a 1 and transhumanism is a 10, then Billy is like a 25. Rosemary, of course, would be somewhere up in the hundreds.
Personally, I think death is only a determining factor in our current experience, not a factor of our humanity. If my body is a vessel, and senescence requires that much of it needs to eventually be replaced, how much of it can be replaced before it’s no longer human? I think the answer is that all of it can be replaced, but it’s still human. If you have an old Chevy and replace the engine and battery and tires and transmission and everything under the hood, and then repaint it and install a modern radio and new upholstery and floor mats and mirrors, it’s still a Chevy. It’s just a Chevy with new parts in and around the frame. I believe that the frame of a human isn’t something we’ve discovered yet, but I don’t believe it’s our components. We haven’t cured death yet.
And I say “yet” because we’ve been here, in our current state, for 200,000 years. Now of those 200,000 years, consider how much medical science has grown over just the past 100 years, how our life expectancy has increased by 60 percent and we have treatments, pharmaceuticals, and devices that would’ve been considered straight up witchcraft not that long ago. How even the stuff we can’t fix we can at least identify, in many or most cases, what needed to be done.
Teleportality is available in paperback and ebook format on Amazon. You can also check out the Facebook fan page or follow T. Aaron Cisco on Twitter for more information and updates about upcoming events.