Gord Sellar wrote the first version of “Winter Wheat” in our current issue [on sale now] more than 13 years ago. The idea gained importance in his mind after he heard a writer claim that “you can’t write SF about farmers.” Luckily, he took this as a challenge, and our readers will reap the rewards.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Gord Sellar: That goes back quite a long time. I actually wrote a draft of “Winter Wheat” a long time ago, back in the summer of 2006, while I was in Seattle for Clarion West. Unlike some of my classmates, I arrived without really having done much brainstorming in terms of what I planned to write for the workshop sessions. I’d basically just finished my teaching duties for the first semester of the teaching position I’d just started that March—and barely so: I’d had to get everything done a few days before the end of semester, and submit piles of paperwork just to get permission to leave a few days before the semester technically ended, so that I could arrive in Seattle on time. When I got to Seattle, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about, and had no outlines or notes or anything except what I’d scribbled into a notebook on the plane ride over from South Korea.
But of course, anyone who’s read the story also knows that it’s as much about the relationship of a son to his father: the failings of each, the struggle to understand one another, the love that is and isn’t expressed.
That said, the story is definitely a response to things that were on my mind at the time. I’d read Vandana Shiva’s book Stolen Harvest and, while I was (and continue to be) wary of some of her claims, the idea of global food security being imperiled by the policies of major corporations engaged in capitalist “business as usual”—and the question of who would stage the resistance to this, and by what means—felt like a really compelling idea.
But of course, anyone who’s read the story also knows that it’s as much about the relationship of a son to his father: the failings of each, the struggle to understand one another, the love that is and isn’t expressed. When I talked to Sheila about the story, one of the things she commented about was that relationship, and how recently becoming a father myself seemed to have had an effect on my writing . . . but in fact, the truth is that aside from small changes, the rendition of the father-son relationship in “Winter Wheat” remains pretty close to how I wrote it thirteen years ago, because it was in response to my own father passing away in February of that year, just months before I attended Clarion West.
The other thing, I guess, is that I’d been living abroad for about three and a half years by summer 2006. One thing that happens with writers who are abroad is, they learn a lot about where they come from. I was thinking about Saskatchewan, about how I ought to write something set there, and of course Saskatchewan was where I spent most of my life growing up, and where I truly got to know my dad. At the same time, it’s a province that, especially when I lived there, tended to be explicitly described as an agriculture-centered place, so it made sense to set a story about crisis in the global food supply there.
It’s funny how much has changed since I wrote the story: Social networks. Smartphones. Netflix. The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool is gone—that was the original middleman who played the unlikely role of corporate “villain” in the original draft of the story. Real research programs have actually started up in southern Saskatchewan, studying the effects of climate change on local fauna, like gophers. And of course, I’m a dad myself now. So I did have to make a lot of small, cosmetic changes to the story. But maybe not as many as you might think.
I should also say that the advice of my classmates and instructors was invaluable to my revisions of “Winter Wheat.”
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
GS: Well, it was actually my original plan to expand the story into a section of a sort of “fixup novel.”
The next section of the book, the “Spring” section was to focus on a brother and sister from the same Belgian family, one running a brewery in Belgium and the other working with small farmers in Congo: the two intertwined stories would explore how north and south are differently affected by things like climate change and resource shortages. The third (“Summer”) section, was to be set in and around Vandanatown—a location mentioned in “Winter Wheat.” Here, the focus would be on the international community that formed there: on their struggles to resist the forces already visible in “Winter Wheat,” their struggle to reconcile their distrust of GMO and agriscience as a tool of exploitation, and their growing belief that the only way to really resist its misuse is to coopt and hack it for the common good. Finally, the “Winter” section was to be set mainly in East Asia, but would explore things coming to a head worldwide when news gets out of just how far a group of allied agricultural conglomerates decide to “secure” the world’s food supply by artificial means.
I don’t know if I’ll ever end up writing those other stories, which of course intertwine with this one. But I do have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised “Winter Wheat” sold at all. About a year or two after I drafted this story, I heard Charles Stross say, on a con panel, “You cannot write science fiction about farmers,” and, like a certain famous sitcom character, I muttered to myself, “Challenge accepted!” Is there a market for a whole science fiction novel about farmers and agricultural hacking and an underground agricultural resistance? I don’t know . . . maybe?
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
GS: I’m sure my sisters will tell you that a lot of my own fraught-but-loving relationship with my dad went into this story. I wrote it while I was still mourning him, so it’s inevitable that the protagonist’s relationship with his father would reflect mine with my late father, too.
That said, it’s not a one-to-one relationship: in fact, the protagonist’s personality was much more like my dad’s, and the father’s personality and inclinations are much more like mine: I’m the one who’s prone to staying up all night and pushing myself to get a project done, even at the cost of my health, and I’m the one who was more interested in science—and in the struggle to fight major corporate abuses of technology—where my dad, who did his training in agriculture back as a young man in Malawi, was more interested in growing things, even if he never did work as a farmer, and wasn’t very involved in agriculture after emigrating to Canada.
I also think there’s probably a bit of me in Devin, the nerdy small town kid who did well in school, but who truly comes into himself once he leaves Canada and lives abroad, settling down and starting a family in a completely foreign land and only visiting the Canadian prairie occasionally.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
GS: About a decade ago, when I first started publishing, someone commented that I seemed to be very interested in the idea of “positive terrorism.” That’s not quite right, but I do find myself drawn to writing about characters who face the dilemma of how individuals or small groups of people—people who are oppressed, or even just people who are smart and see the writing on the wall in a way the average person doesn’t—fight back against the massive, powerful institutions in our world that most often are predicated on maintaining the status quo.
Partly I think it stems from my experience of childhood. From an early age, I was keenly aware, and constantly pissed off, about how patronizing most adults constantly were toward young people including myself; partly, I think, it’s also because that’s a big dilemma we’re facing now, isn’t it? How can decent, ethical, reasonable people respond to the kinds of awfulness rearing its head in our world? Not just the political stuff, the resurgence of stuff we’d hoped had been smothered out decades ago, but also so many other things, too. People love that saying about how “All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” I’m interested in the question of what those good people are supposed to be doing, and how sometimes powerful systems bear down on them to prevent them doing it, or to talk them out of it, whether it’s them fighting for themselves, overcoming their differences with others, overthrowing tyrannical systems, or something more subtle and personal.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
GS: I started out, like a lot of people, writing fanfic. I didn’t know that’s what it was—I just wanted to write Ghostbusters stories with me and my friends in them. I hadn’t even seen the movie, actually! I’d just seen one of those books with images from the film and a plot summary, and it captured my mind. I proceeded to write knockoffs of The Hobbit and The Neverending Story. As a kid, I also wrote a lot of poems, something that continued pretty much until I went to grad school and basically set it aside.
Another thing I think is pretty common is that I was playing tabletop RPGs from about the age of ten. I was crafting all these intricately-planned adventures, and my friends had their characters do stuff I hadn’t anticipated (as they of course do), and at some point I realized that my intricately-planned adventures were really just outlines for stories that I ought to be writing. Still, I went through a long fantasy stage, and then weird/horror fiction, before actually looking seriously into SF as something I could write. (And I still slip back into those other genres occasionally.)
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
GS: Well, I have two novels that are sitting and waiting for final revisions. The first is a shorter thing about a trio of teenagers stuck in an international school in Uzbekistan, who get caught up in the unintended consequences of a very weird technology, and decide to do something more useful with it than the adults around them ever imagined possible.
The other novel is a much bigger, more convoluted historical SF novel, imagining the global consequences of a biological singularity occurring sometime in the 1730s, with London as ground zero. I’m still not sure whether that’s a single massive novel, or a trilogy, but either way I suspect it’s going to be some time before it’s finished. Early Georgian England is a weird, weird time to begin with, even before you add in the SFnal material. I also have a few SF things in various stages of completion, but I’m still struggling with finding the time to work on them: parenthood was pretty disruptive to my writing process.
Even so, I should also add that my wife and I are fairly involved in the Korean SF translation project over at Clarkesworld (clarkesworld.com) this year. We’ve contributed some translations, and have one co-translation that we’re working on at the moment; beyond translation work, we’ve also participated in the team that recommends and evaluates stories, and we’ve done some liaison/communication work along with providing general advice and help.
I’ve also been helping with the final stages of work on a book that’s coming out soon from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the Finnish tabletop RPG publisher, which riffs on some of the same themes as in that early Georgian singularity novel I mentioned a moment ago. So . . . I guess that’s things coming full circle.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
GS: Well, not that I don’t have issues with some of the execution—there are bits of the novel that make me cringe—but I think the scenario in H.G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet would be nice. The Earth passes through the tail of a comet and everyone on Earth falls asleep, only to wake up much, much wiser than they are. Smarter, too, maybe, but mostly wiser. Wells has a distorted of what that would look like, given the prejudices common at the turn of the twentieth century—but instant mass enlightenment? Sounds good, right?
Of course, now my mind’s spinning again, looking for the problem with that. That’s the thing: once you start seriously trying to write SF, it gets hard to take any utopian idea too seriously. I guess, though, it’d be interesting to have a technology like the one in The Light of Other Days, the novel Stephen Baxter wrote from an outline by Arthur C. Clarke. Imagine all the historical mysteries that’d be cleared up! We’d eventually have copies of every book ever lost. We would have a much fairer justice system. Sure, your kids could see your most embarrassing moments ever. Imagine how awful life online would become! But still . . . it’d be such a fascinating window into human life.
Realistically, though, I’d settle for humanity making it through the twenty-first century with as little horrific dislocation and insanity as possible. It’s going to be a tough century no matter what we do now, but a minimum of chaos would be nice.
AE: What are you reading right now?
GS: Well, despite having less reading time than in the past—having a toddler really does make reading a luxury sometimes—I usually have a big stack of books on the go, and I sort of bounce from one to the other, reading when I can. I’ve just started Nora Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, and I’m working my way through Michael Blumlein’s Thoreau’s Microscope. I’ve also been trying to read more older SF, things written in periods I haven’t read as much from, like Andre Norton’s Witch World, Jack Vance’s The Star King. I’ve also gotten into Icelandic Sagas in the past year or two, and have a couple on the go, though the main one I’m reading right now is Njal’s Saga. Then there’s the usual random mix of biographies and history. My friend Justin Howe loaned me a great book, The Enemy Within: A Short History of Witch-Hunting by John Demos. That’s fascinating stuff.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
GS: Ha, you should be wary of advice offered to you by other writers online!
I think the most useful advice I’ve gotten is that everyone does things a little differently, and that worrying about how other people do stuff—or how well or quickly they’re doing it compared to you—is a waste of time. Comparing yourself to others is a way of killing your motivation, of sidestepping where you are and what you need to do right now. Instead of going and looking at everyone else’s self-described success, get to work. I’ll be reminding myself of that for the next week, while I see pictures of friends and acquaintances at WorldCon while I’m in the countryside, trying to get a little work done on my book before the summer runs out.
Oh, and having a decent day job? It’s a good idea.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
GS: I think the question I’d have to ask me, if I were to pick one, would be how my life abroad has affected my writing.
The short answer is, pretty deeply. I actually left Canada hoping that the experience of being immersed in a completely unfamiliar society might teach me something about what it’s like to experience and represent a bewildering, unfamiliar future. But . . . honestly, the stuff I’ve learned about how alienating future shock can be, I think, everyone on Earth has been learning at about the same rate. It wasn’t like that at first: when I first arrived here, everyone owned a cell phone, even elderly people, whereas back home the few friends I had who owned them had explicit reasons: a brother working for the phone company, say, or an employer who provided one in order to keep one of my friends (grudgingly) on-call. But now all of us, everywhere, walk around with miraculous pocket computers that can contact anyone else on Earth who has one in an instant.
Somehow, I think living in Korea taught me much different, more harder-won lessons: I’ve learned a lot about sociology, about historiography, about how much of a role official institutions can play in forming and shaping individual and group identity, about the fragility of things like democracy and civil society, and about what it’s like to be a visible minority, a sometimes vulnerable one despite my apparent (and very situational) white privilege. Oh, and also, how hokey it is that heroes have to “go it alone” so much in North American narratives. Going it alone is easy: what’s hard is banding together with other would-be heroes and avoiding pointless arguments and nonsense that’ll stop you getting necessary stuff done. I think those lessons inform my writing, too. (At least I hope they do.)
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
GS: My blog (gordsellar.com) is pretty quiet these days, but there’s a page there that lists published works, including things available online. That’s here. I’m on Twitter too (@gordsellar) and Facebook, but these days I keep a relatively low profile on social media, because participating too much there saps away time, something I already have too little of as it is. Still, I’m always happy to hear from readers, so people should feel free to reach out if they want to.