Charlie Jane Anders And Annalee Newitz On Creating Worlds, And How To Tell If You're In An Alternate Timeline

Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, discussing their novels at a recent event in London, England. (Photo: James Whitbrook/io9)

Readers of Gizmodo are no doubt very aware that since leaving the site, io9 co-founders Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz have gone on to write their own award-winning works of fiction. But how do science fiction and fantasy bloggers move to writing science fiction themselves? At a recent talk in London, England, the duo discussed their process.

Last week, the io9 co-founders and novelists discussed their work as part of talk for the Dark Societies Science Fiction and Fantasy book group. To break the ice, moderator Leila Abu El-Hawa asked a simple question of the two journalists-turned-authors: if they woke up in an alternate reality one morning, how would they be able to immediately tell something wasn’t quite right with the world?

“Probably the coffee would be different,” Anders began. “That would be the first thing I’d think about when I woke up. ‘Where’s the coffee? What kind of coffee is there?’ And, you know, do they know how to make a decent piccolo? That’s going to be the main question.”

“I’m immediately like, ‘What’s up with the internet connectivity?’ ‘Where’s my device?’ ‘What does it look like?’,” Newitz added. “If it turns out it plugs into a hole in my back, or something like that... then I know I’m in the Cronenberg universe.”

As for the musical accompaniment to their alternate worlds? “If it’s Charlie’s universe, it’s going to be funk,” Newitz joked.

“It’s going to be “Jungle Boogie” or something. It’ll be something by Kool & the Gang, I think,” Anders explained. For Newitz, it was something a little more science-fictional: “I’m going to go with Janelle Monae. I just want to be in that universe, whatever that is. Where Janelle Monae is playing.”

“Any universe with Janelle Monae is a good universe,” Anders concluded.

With such an objective truth stated, Newitz and Anders moved on how their most recent sophomore novels — Newitz’s upcoming The Future of Another Timeline, and Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night, released earlier this year — came to be.

Writing in the wake of both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Newitz said the idea behind Future of Another Timeline, a time-travelling epic about archaeologists who decide to try and change the past for noble reasons, was about the mutability of history.

“There were two sparks,” Newitz began. “One will seem really obvious, which [was] that I was writing in 2017 when the United States underwent a regime change. You guys kind of did [in the UK], too — you had that vote that caused our vote, I blame you! I was thinking a lot about how contingent history is, how easy it is for things to change, really quickly — and how when we look back at history we always think it was this solid, fact-based thing.

This thing happened, and this was inevitable. But of course, it isn’t. We’re constantly shifting the timeline, always. So, I was thinking about that. I was thinking about how I wanted to write a story that was hopeful. So — this is not a spoiler — but the ending is relatively happy. When I first thought of it, I was like, “I’m gonna make it dark!” But I was like, “No... I actually really want the characters to have a little bit of success.”

“The other thing that I was excited about is that I’m a little bit of a science journalist, and I’ve been writing about archaeology — I’m actually working on a book about archaeology,” Newitz continued. “And when you write a book on archaeology, all you want to do is time travel. You just wish you had a time machine. And it drives you nuts. So there’s several places they go in the novel which are just places I’d like to go as someone who reads archaeology.

So, it fulfilled my Mary Sue urge to travel back to the Nabataean Empire. But also to think about how history really works. And that’s one of the big questions the characters are asking us. How does historical change work? What are the principals behind it and how do you make it happen? It’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. But they do figure out a few ways to make things slightly better.”

While Future of Another Timeline came from a link to the distant past, for Anders, City in the Middle of the Night’s central setting came from a more recent history — her work on io9. “I had been reading a lot about tidally-locked planets [for io9], which are these planets that are, you know, one side permanently faces the sun and one side is always in darkness. Sort of the same way we always see one side of the moon — and there was the ‘dark side of the moon’ we could never see because its facing away from us all the time,” Anders explained.

“The moon is tidally locked to the Earth, and in other solar systems — not just in our solar system. There are tons of planets that are tidally locked to their suns. And I remember thinking, ‘If I’m going to write a tidally locked planet novel, I better do it soon — because soon, everyone is going to be doing them! I still believe that. I think it’s going to become a major genre. There were a few of them before me — I think Roger Zelazny wrote one. But, it’s still relatively new as a thing in science-fiction.”

Research on the existence of tidally-locked planets only pushed Anders to look further into them. “It turns out, while we were working at io9 what scientists were finding out was that tidally locked solar systems are very common outside of our solar system — I actually wrote a giant article for The Atlantic about this,” Anders continued.

“So, if we settle a planet outside of our solar system — if we ever actually manage to travel to another star and settle somewhere else — it’s going to be a tidally-locked planet.”

The extremity behind the two sides tidally-locked worlds provided a contrast Anders was eager to write about. “I’m always obsessed with stories about people who living between two different extremes,” she said.

“My first major novel, All the Birds in the Sky was about science versus magic. These two binaries, these two extremes. So I like the idea of people who are living between night and day. And night and day are places, rather than times. But they’re both really harsh, extreme climates. And I just thought that was a really interesting visual metaphor. And then I just got sucked in thinking about how we would organise where we sleep, and there’s different societies on this planet where people have different ways of organising our sleep schedule.

But also how we reckon the passage of time, because we don’t have sunrise and sunset. So how do we know how much time has passed? How do we think about history? It just sort of... I went down this rabbit hole of thinking about our relationship to our world and environment — and how it made us different as people, if we lived on these different planets. And the answer turned out to be very, very frickin’ different!”

With the ideas for their respective stories as the structural groundwork to build on, the writers turned to how they began building up their books on them — and the art of finding characters to flesh out a world, or a world to build around interesting characters.

Newitz approached the idea first, discussing how the process was inverse for their experiences writing Future of Another Timeline and their debut novel, Autonomous. “With Autonomous, it was definitely the characters that came first. I kept imagining this robot who was struggling with pain,” Newitz said of one of the novel’s protagonists, Paladin.

“We don’t think a lot about robots and what kind of sensory inputs they’re going to have, other than, ‘they will have visual systems’. And this robot feels physical pain and there’s a lot of reasons why — of course, he was a lot of emotional pain as well. Because what good is a robot if it’s not emo? And also in love with the wrong guy, but... whatever! That was important to me, and so I developed a world of characters for that robot.”

Newitz and Anders’ most recently available novels, Autonomous and The City in the Middle of the Night. (Photo: James Whitbrook/io9)

For their upcoming novel however, it was the the other way around. “In Future of Another Timeline, I started thinking about these big picture issues around history, and then the characters came to me,” Newitz continued. But while the characters came after the idea for the world in Future of Another Timeline, there was still a personal connection to Newitz’s own past that inspired them.

“Actually, one of the characters was very personal, she is a character who grows up where I grew up — in the city where I grew up and all the places I used to go to,” they revealed.

“Her friend becomes a serial killer. Which did not actually happen to me. although we thought about it a lot! It was interesting, because it was this alien world of time travel, [but] I got to research my own history while I was doing it, because I had to remember all the places we had gone. I kept emailing my friends from that time, going ‘What was that record store we used to go to?’ So, people who were from this tiny town are going to be shocked to discover there’s a lot of time travel happening.”

The process was similar for Anders and her own books. “All the Birds in the Sky — my earlier novel — started with this idea of a witch and mad scientist and their relationship. It started out with these two characters and I built a world around them,” she added.

“It was like, I had this idea of these two people and I started sketching in the background around them as I went. That was fun. Then, with [City in the Middle of the Night] because I was starting out with tidally locked planets, and I have these creatures, and I have these cities the humans are living in and how do they organise this stuff, basically, I spent about two years writing longhand in notebooks.”

Anders became so enthralled with the world-building aspect, that initially, the characters were almost ancillary to her process. “I basically kept writing, and writing, and writing, and I was coming up with more interesting world stuff, but the characters were not coming at all,” she revealed. “I had placeholder characters I was writing about.

The characters were not falling into place, and actually, what happened was — the reason I quit doing io9, there were a bunch of reasons, but the main reason was because I was reaching a point where I needed to really focus on this novel in order to figure out who these characters were and what their story was and what their arc was.”

While Anders left io9 in 2016, she used the time to go back and populate the world she was fascinated with equally compelling characters. “That was something I could only do after I quit my day job, but I already spent two years — 2014 and 2015, to the spring of 2016 — just sketching this world and writing a bunch of scenes that were... none of them ended up in the book,” Anders continued.

“I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of crap that didn’t get into the book, because I had to figure out the world before I could get the characters in it. It’s really hard. Because, in some ways, the world is kind of the star of the book and the characters are just inhabiting it.”

For both writers, their inspirations came down to the binary contrasts between groups of people — for Newitz in Autonomous, it was something they examined between the humans of that world and their A.I. creations.

“One of the principal ideas in Autonomous is that humans eventually invent human-equivalent A.I. — which I think is kind of a fantasy, speaking as a science journalist,” Newitz added. “Because people often say to me, ‘this seems very realistic...’ but the robots are basically people except their brains can be more easily programmed.”

Newitz went on to explain, “So [in the world of Autonomous] what’s happened is there’s this kind of robot civil rights movement, and robots go from being completely being chattel slaves to being indentured. When people build robots, or a a company builds a robot, that robot is indentured to that organisation, or that person, for the first ten years of their life to pay off the cost of their manufacture.

And after that, they get what’s called an Autonomy Key, which gives them full access to their brain, basically. Which is quite an interesting process. But what happens, as a result, is that the cultures around the world have been forced to acknowledge that artificial intelligence can be human equivalent, and it can also be indentured.”

“So, clever corporate lawyers argue, ‘then of course, humans can be indentured, as well,’ because we already know human-equivalent human beings can be indentured,” they continued. “That was, for me, the most crunchy fun — thinking through how that indentured system would come about. And doing it in the most plausible, nasty way to remind everyone how close we are to a system where people are indentured and enslaved. That was a bit of world-building I enjoyed inflicting on the reader!”

That exploration of harsh binaries likewise drove a lot of Anders’ thought processes for both All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night. “I love exploring binaries, I love exploring oppositions, and maybe in the course of the story, undermining them or showing how they can be reconciled,” she added.

“I think it gets to questions about ‘othering’, and how we treat people who are kind of viewed as opposites, or other. [In City in the Middle of the Night] you have the thing where people are caught between day and night, and originally, when I was first conceiving this novel, there were going to be creatures living in the day — there’s still one page in the book toward the end where there still are intelligent creatures living on the day side as well, but we never get to see them, because I just ran out of book!

So there’s two opposing cities with these radially differing approaches to life on this planet — and then, there’s also these humans and these creature who live in the night. I really enjoy having these binaries and poking at them and just seeing what I can do with them.”

For Anders, that contrast tackles an existential question behind a lot of science-fiction.

“In the end, for me, it often gets back to that point, ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I think this is true about both [of my] books,” Anders concluded, “the question of who gets to have personhood and who gets to have control over their life, and how do we understand people we don’t quite consider human, or people. There’s that new Catherynne Valente book, Space Opera, where she says the big question is always ‘Who’s a person and who’s meat?’ Which is a wonderful way of summing it up. Who can we just eat and who do we have to talk to?”


All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders, are available now, as is Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Newitz’s sophomore novel, The Future of Another Timeline, hits shelves September 24.

We’ll have more from Anders and Newitz’s talk soon.

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