Friday 7 August 2020

Interview with Derek Künsken - Author of The House Of Styx

Ottawa-based science fiction author Derek Künsken has become a mainstay in
Cover of The House Of Styx
The House of Styx
is Derek Kunsken's
third (and best) novel.
(Image via Goodreads) 
the magazines Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction. Armed with a master’s degree in molecular biology from McMaster University, and his experiences working in Canada’s diplomatic service, he writes politically deft space opera that explores the implications of genetic engineering. His third novel The House Of Styx was serialized this spring in Analog, with a complete edition coming out in a few weeks from Rebellion Publishing. In April, blog contributor Olav Rokne interviewed Künsken about the upcoming novel.  

House of Styx is your third novel, but it’s a prequel to the first two. Could you tell me a little bit about it and how it relates to your previous books and stories?

The House of Styx is basically a Godfather story set in the clouds of Venus.

It’s going to show in two books basically the genesis of the Venusian Congregate which in later stories and novels becomes an interstellar powerhouse.

You’re Canadian … you'll quite obviously notice that the Congregate in The House of Styx are Quebecois.

I had imagined what would happen if Quebec separated [from Canada] at some point and then wanted to be a space-faring nation. But by the time they got to space, the only place left unclaimed was Venus. What would you do with a society that has been focused for 250 years on trying not to be assimilated linguistically and culturally? And what would happen if they became powerful? How would their linguistic concerns play out in society?

That’s why in the book, we get French 8.1 and 8.3 and the Scarecrow speaks a 7.1 but it's impolitic for some outsiders to speak particular kinds of accents and stuff like that.

I so loved the idea of seeing my Quebecois family sort of reflected in the future history that I was writing and it’s interesting because a lot of future histories even written by non-American authors seem to reflect the future as a largely American-dominated culture. It’s that hegemony of American power that we see reflected.

What was the main theme that you wanted to tackle in The House of Styx?

I was flying to the Nebulas conference, I think it was in 2013. I had already created all of the biology in the clouds of Venus, but I didn't really have a story to tell with this. I had a sort of survival story, but something was missing. This was going on at the same time as some of the ‘reasonable accommodation’ debates were happening in Quebec — and I’m half-Quebecois myself.
The serialized version of House Of Styx was 
illustrated by Eldar Zakirov.
(Image via DeviantArt)

So I was following the news and basically it was appalling to see some of the discourse around “how should Arab people integrate into Quebec.” It quite obviously came from a place of intolerance. Then I realized that the caustic intolerance that I was observing in society was a perfect metaphor for the sort of acidic environment of the clouds of Venus. And so I wrote that story, but there was so much more to it that — as soon as I had sold it to Analog — I realized I had another novel or two in me dealing with those kinds of characters, that kind of political setting and that kind of metaphorical environment.

That’s interesting because I’d picked up on a theme of subverting colonialism in your work. It’s a colonialist system, but it’s a narrative of decolonization.

You’re correct.
The patron nations and the client nations came about in these stories because I was asking what would happen if the rich powers — these four major powers that basically get a lock on outer space resources — what would be left for a country that comes to space 100 years later?

That's concerning to me.

Once nations spend as much money to get into space as it takes, will they necessarily respect the common good? Or will it just be ‘I got here first, now I’m exploiting it?’

Does science fiction have a responsibility to imagine better possible futures and by doing so potentially engineer them?
Künsken takes inspiration from
politics in his home province.
(Image via NorthumberlandFM)

I don’t know if I would go so far as to say ‘responsibility,’ because in the end I’m trying to tell entertaining stories that will hopefully move people in some way. If there's a thousand readers or 10,000 readers and that’s it, you know sort of mission accomplished.

I don't see my role to necessarily look at things but one of the things science fiction does really well is cautionary tales. It’s not that I set out to write a cautionary tale, but some of my concerns come through, so things like the Puppets are an expression of my own anxieties.

One of the things I loved most about Quantum Garden and Quantum Magician was how you played with concerns around genetic engineering. I was wondering if you could expand on your thinking that led to the creation of the Puppets and Numen because they kind of creep me out.

So I want to start every conversation about The Quantum Magician with “I’m so sorry for the Puppets.”

There are some fundamentalist sects of Christianity where they tend to have multiple brides they tend to eject the younger males. I was reading about that at one point and I was surprised at how this could happen [today]. If that can happen on the Earth and if North Korea can happen on the Earth …

If our current systems can’t even deal with [Human Trafficking] on planet Earth, what would happen if you have an asteroid colony where 100 people take over and make everybody do what they want? What is it going to be like when the next nearest police or help for somebody is six light hours away?

I thought about what might happen if you took the most selfish and short-sighted people in the world and you gave them the power to genetically engineer their own children, what would they do?
If they want to make themselves perfect slaves that are half the size so that they will never be physically threatened and then build a system where pheremonally these people will love their masters … and there are people who are unethical enough and short-sighted enough to think that this would be a fine idea.

That’s where the Puppets came from.

A recurring theme in your work is the cruelty of creating these genetically engineered lines of humanity and the unintended consequences.

It is cruel.

The thing is you know let’s say you get a coder or a developer to write you a computer program. They have the specifications for what you need, and then they create a draft of the program, they run it and then they debug it and then they run it again and then they see is this what you wanted and then they’ll reprogram some things and then they’ll debug it again and there’s no ethical consequence to any of that process because there’s nothing in there that deserves ethical consideration.

When you’re dealing with human beings and you're dealing with germ-line changes — which means it’ll pass on to the children — the debugging process is literally the children are born and you hope they grow right. And if they don't, oh that's a bug in the code. So I mean there’s huge huge ethical problems with that process.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

Well, I’ve got an epic fantasy book that I’m editing right now. I would like to see if there’s any market for it. I also wrote a horror novel — a very short one so it probably needs a lot of beefing up. Some of what I did with the Puppets shows that I can probably do horror.

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