“Semper Augustus” [in our March/April issue on sale now] continues Nancy Kress’s decades-long tradition of writing about economic disturbances caused by automation. Read on to learn how the story also connects to tulips, how Nancy can tell when a story in progress has taken a wrong turn, and what her ideal society looks like.
Asimov’s Editor: How did “Semper Augustus” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
NK: Any piece of fiction has multiple sources. In one way, everything a writer has ever experienced, read, seen, or heard is a source, in that these things stock the deep well of the mind from which stories flow. But that’s a pretty general statement, isn’t it? For this story specifically, I was concerned with the condition of the United States right now. We have greater, and nastier, political divides than I have ever seen before. We have enormous income inequality. We have increasing automation putting people out of well-paying jobs, and that is likely to increase.
I wanted to write a story about these things, and I wanted in particular to make the fictional situation as complex as real life can be. Revolution—as history shows us—can start by aiming for justice but also include leaders more interested in power than justice. Aristocrats, as history also shows us, may disdain and exploit those on the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, but exploiters are not one-dimensional: they have personal lives, affections, fears and failures. I don’t like fiction with unnuanced villains or heroic paragons. It feels false to reality.
As Jennie moves through various strata of society, she sees all of this complexity. She learns from it. Initially, I thought Cora might be the protagonist. But as the story grew—slowly—I learned more about what I wanted to say. Cora isn’t really capable of learning. Her daughter is. So Jennie became my focus.
And the tulips? I’m fascinated by the stock-market-like frenzy over trading tulip futures in 1600s Holland. It was so bizarre—future tulip bulbs, those that promised to be “broken” into new color patterns, sold for today’s equivalent of thousands of dollars. And the new colors were the result of a virus that eventually wrecked the plants! Unknowingly, the tulip madness was rewarding disease. There was my metaphor.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
NK: The novella is very much a stand-alone, but it does have an antecedent. In 2017 I published a story called “Dear Sarah,” in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Infinity Wars. The background of that story was the same as that of “Semper Augustus:” a country whose economy becomes concentrated in the few who could exploit advanced alien technology, with a resulting revolution by the poor and militant. The protagonist of “Dear Sarah,” however, is a far different person from Jennie, and she makes far different choices.
In another sense, even my novel Beggars in Spain is connected to these stories, in that since the 1990s I’ve been writing about economic disturbances caused by automation.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
NK: Weirdly, I relate to Gran. She’s a bad mother (which I hope I was not), a marginally better grandmother, harsh and controlling. But she does the best she can in impossible circumstances, and the central piece of advice she gives Grace, Cora, and Jennie is as true as anything I know: “Do what you have to, but be prepared for the shit you get doing it.” A definition, in its own way, of heroism.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
NK: I am not good at titles. Usually my husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, ends up titling my work for me. But in this case, the name of the most famous tulip in the 1600s frenzy, the red-streaked Semper Augustus, fit the story. “Always Augustus”—but nothing is forever. Especially not society as we think we know it at any given moment.
. . . the central piece of advice [Gran] gives Grace, Cora, and Jennie is as true as anything I know: “Do what you have to, but be prepared for the shit you get doing it.” A definition, in its own way, of heroism.
AE: What is your process?
NK: I usually start with just an initial scene and a general set-up, often involving some sort of technology. That might be genetic engineering (it often is), automation, some weird alien tech I’ve dreamed up. The first scene, with a character clear in my mind, comes to me all at once, and I write the scene very quickly. If I’m lucky, the second scene also occurs to me, and I write that equally quickly (this is what happened with “Semper Augustus.”) Then I pause and begin the real work of thinking through the implications of what I’ve written. Who are these people? What do they want? What do they have to do to get it? What effect would this tech have on their society? What ideas do I want to explore here?
Then I write, much more slowly, trying to feel my way through the story by feeling my way into the characters. I know the general direction I’m going, but not the specific ending. That occurs to me, usually, about half way through, which means extensive rewriting of the first half.
All this writing and rewriting, incidentally, takes place beginning early each morning. I am very much a morning person. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. At least, not that day.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
NK: I don’t get blocked, per se. But sometimes I find that I’m reluctant to work on a story—oh! I must scrub the kitchen floor! Oh! I must write an email to my second cousin whom I haven’t seen in ten years! That’s usually a sign that the story has taken a wrong turn. I find the last scene where I felt no reluctance to write, because that’s where the story took a wrong turn. Then I replot from there, usually discarding what didn’t work. And cursing a lot at having to do so.
AE: How did you break into writing?
NK: The only way possible—by writing stories, sending them out, having them rejected, sending them out again, getting rejected . . . repeat until something sells. Meanwhile, I examined any personal note on a rejection slip with the scrutiny afforded a treasure map, trying to figure out what needed to be done differently. Feedback from a competent instructor can help this learning process go faster, which is why I now teach aspiring SF writers.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
NK: I would like to live in Ursula LeGuin’s anarchistic society Anarres in her novel The Dispossessed. Not because I think anarchy can actually work (I don’t), but because in her novel it does work. Everything is shared, there is very little crime, and income inequality does not exist because income does not exist. Everyone can do their chosen work, or no work, without the energy-sucking distractions of juggling bills and time. The level of existence isn’t high, but it’s adequate, healthy, and technologically sophisticated. I would be willing to give up luxury for equality and solidarity.
Interestingly, when I taught The Dispossessed at the University of Leipzig, students in the former East Germany did not agree. When offered a hypothetical choice, only two students chose Anarres over the capitalistic and exploitive sister planet, Urras.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
NK: Self-driving cars. I am not a particularly good driver and I don’t like driving. Also, I’m still waiting for my personal jet pack.
AE: What are you reading right now?
NK: Andrew Yang’s The War On Normal People. His idea of a universal basic income was something I explored in Beggars In Spain. Yang has brought together in his book an enormous number of statistics, some personal experiences, and trenchant insights into class differences in the contemporary United States. And he writes well. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I’m interested.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
NK: I was on Facebook, but during a period of illness I got away from it, and somehow never went back. I have a website but am woefully bad at keeping it up to date. I need to do better. I will. Maybe. Meanwhile, there’s always Amazon for my two forthcoming works, both out in May, 2020: a stand-alone novella, Sea Change (Tachyon) and a space-opera novel, The Eleventh Gate (Baen).