Pictured above: The CEO of Future Affairs Administration in Miao ceremonial dress, and our interviewed author, Derek Künsken.
For “Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County,” [on sale now], Derek Künsken did a deep-dive into the eponymous county’s socioeconomic workings. Below, he takes us on a journey through the story’s origins and development, and the questions and unpolished answers that helped him fully realize this setting. Bonus: more photos from Derek’s time in Danzhai County, and a link to his re-read of the X-Men comics!
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
DK: One of my Chinese publishers (Future Affairs Administration, like a sort of Chinese Lightspeed magazine) occasionally does partnerships with private companies to bring scifi authors to see parts of China and then write science fiction inspired by the experience. It’s a bit of a mix of futurism and foresight. Three other western authors, six Chinese authors, and I tour a private sector poverty relief initiative in the mountains of Danzhai County in Guizhou province, one of the poorest provinces of China.
They showed us the new industries they’d been building (eco-tourism and cultural tourism— mostly targeting the growing Chinese middle class), as well as new agricultural initiatives, especially cooperative tea farming, as well as schools, new roads and bridges and so on. Meeting the ethnic Miao people and seeing elements of their culture was the experience of a lifetime and obviously inspired.
Traditional bird cages made by Miao craftspeople.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
DK: I’d already written a story for FAA on commission after a trip like this (Water and Diamond, also published in Asimov’s), but that had been after touring a high-tech Chinese financial services company. For this one, I felt I’d been given a turn at plate to write science fiction on a real contemporary issue and so I wanted to really think about how technology and society and poverty would interact.
I’ve seen poverty in other places, and I didn’t want in any way to disrespect that type of human experience. So before I left for Danzhai County, I researched everything I could on poverty reports in China. I also spent a lot of time with the Chinese editors and writers, asking a lot of questions about poverty and its drivers in China. I had expected that there might be some reticence in the answers, but my hosts were very frank.
They answered questions about racism, sexual harassment, education, disability, pay gap between women and men, and so on. They also answered all the cultural questions I needed to have answered to have a chance to try to depict the world of Danzhai County as authentically as I could. These had a lot to do with gender, sexuality, family roles, family formation, and generational expectations. No one seemed to try to give me a polished version because the answers I got were often not pretty and were very much in line to what I’d seen of poverty and social problems in other countries.
Rice field way up in a mountain, pictured prior to a meeting with village elders.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
DK: I trained as a biologist, so I sometimes take unnecessarily evolutionary views of things, in this case, what we mean when we say tool. We’re tool users, and in many ways, we can think about all our tools and memetic knowledges and mental abstractions like language and art as parts of the human phenotype. This idea of the tool as the phenotype becomes very weird and distorted when we think of things like AI and machine learning as tools. When we can make AIs that can think as well as we can, are they still tools, or are we making whole other classes of phenotypes? I don’t know, but I felt that some of the answer was in the idea of what constitutes a tool.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
DK: I don’t write a lot of novellas so I was a tiny bit worried about finding a home for it, but Asimov’s had published nine other pieces of short fiction of mine, including a novella. And Sheila is an editor I trust with my work. So while the story kept growing, I wrote to ask her how long was too long. When she accepted the story, she had some really important editorial notes that very much improved it.
Authors Bo Jiang, Derek Künsken, and Bao Shu against a backdrop of rice farms. Jiang and Shu have both been translated and published in Clarkesworld as well as elsewhere.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
DK: A while ago I might have answered this with something a little less examined, but since my book editor named my novel series “The Quantum Evolution series,” I realized that a lot of my work seems to think in evolutionary terms. Humans are evolving right now, as we speak. If we take tools to be phenotypic expressions of our species, in the last century, our phenotype and way of living has changed drastically.
I also like to think about the life forms that different environments can evolve. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s as easy as saying I learned evolution and now think in those terms. But I think that as you think more and more in certain ways, the easier (and more likely) it is to think along those pathways. I hope that’s not a statement that my thinking is calcifying, but I’m not ruling that out.
AE: What is your process?
DK: I think I prefer to write on spec. That is to say, I think I do because I live in fear of signing a contract and then getting writer’s block and being all stressed about it. I haven’t had writer’s block yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t fear it. I think that’s why I outline and plot out things so much. For my first Chinese-commissioned futurism story, I researched the heck out of the technologies they said they were going to show us, before I even got on the plane. I did the same thing here and arrived with some possible characters and situations and conflicts in mind, ways I thought that technology might affect poverty and poverty reduction efforts. For this story, I finished an outline with a bunch of scratchy scene descriptions and then drafted it in about three weeks.
I trained as a biologist, so I sometimes take unnecessarily evolutionary views of things, in this case, what we mean when we say tool. We’re tool users, and in many ways, we can think about all our tools and memetic knowledges and mental abstractions like language and art as parts of the human phenotype.
AE: How did you break into writing?
DK: Haha. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of being published described in those terms. We can break into acting or comics, but getting published was collecting fifty rejections in a folder across two novels and maybe a dozen short stories. The fifty-first submission was an acceptance from the venerable Canadian SF magazine On Spec. My second acceptance, a year later, was from Sheila, for “Beneath Sunlit Shallows,” which appeared in the magazine in 2008.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
DK: I’m happy to say that Solaris Books liked The Quantum Magician (also serialized in Analog) and The Quantum Garden enough that they bought another three books from me, one of which is finishing its serialization in Analog (The House of Styx) and the two others which I am writing right now, around work and parenting. I think this interview will go up at the same time The House of Styx will be released in ebook and audio. Links here: https://books2read.com/TheHouseofStyx. The hardcover was rescheduled for an April 2021 release.
Traditional (and very spicy) cuisine from Guizhou.
AE: What are you reading right now?
DK: I’m actually terrible at watching TV, so I’m pretty chuffed that in the last six months, I watched all three seasons of Westworld (some of the best science fiction I’ve ever seen in TV/movie form in terms of the examination of the science fictional ideas), and am well on track to get to at least season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Between a day job, parenting, writing, and the pandemic, I don’t have the bandwidth right now to engage with new fiction, so I’m mostly rereading, including a bunch of older comic books.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DK: I mostly dwell on twitter @derekkunsken and keep a website at http://www.derekkunsken.com. My first two space opera novels are available everywhere in print, audio and ebook. If you want to see me in full nerd colors, I wax deep-geek over comic books every two weeks at http://www.blackgate.com, where I’ve been blogging for about 6 years. Late last year, I started a complete reread of the X-Men, starting with X-Men #1 in 1963. I’m up to fifteen or so posts so far. You can find them here: https://www.blackgate.com/?s=x-men.
One thought on “Q&A with Derek Künsken”
Exceptional story, Derek. It carries off its novella length (24,000 words!) really well and doesn’t go the places where one would expect it to go — especially not the ending — and is all the better and more moving for that.
You’ve also done some really solid SF thinking about 21st century technological and social possibilities, too, which I hardly ever see in new SF. Good stuff.