I want to say that when I was young, I loved fairytales. But that would be a lie. Love is not the right word. I was obsessed with them. I enjoyed Disney well enough, but what I craved most was eating through Hans Christian Andersen and Aesop and then digging back even further to the older versions that haunted me. In these stories, fathers sold their daughters to the devil and chopped their hands off when they refused to sleep with them. In these stories, evil queens danced in red hot shoes until they died. In these stories, mermaids walked on land as if knives were stabbing into their feet, and when they refused to kill the ones they loved they became seafoam.
So I think it’s fair to say that Division came from a childhood devouring dark fairytales, an adulthood discovering the joys of science fiction, and the dream, always, of making up stories and sharing them. But I didn’t want to just do Cinderella in space. Most if not all of the popular fairytales have been reimagined countless times in beautiful, haunting ways (I recommend Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Deerskin by Robin Mckinley, just to name a few). What I wanted to do was recapture some of the patterns and questions and ambiguity within the darkness. Why is it that Baba Yaga, who literally eats children, is the one who gives Vasilisa the gift of life and fire? What does it say about the society she was born within that Little Red Riding Hood innocently eats her dead grandmother, gets in bed with the Wolf, and then a crow croaks “Slut” at her before she’s eaten alive? For that matter, how interesting is it that fairytales evolve over time, until the actual mothers are all sweetly and innocently dead and have been replaced by wicked stepmothers?
I have been asked why I called this book a collection of science fiction fairytales. This is why: I believe that when fairytales were first dreamed up over a fire and passed to each other from mouth to mouth, magic was the way that people made sense of the strange and sometimes cruel world around them. So magic was the challenge and the wonder they thrust their protagonists into, to see what they and their society were made of. And so fairytales became the way to pass down lessons and warnings they could whisper to their children and entertain the adults over cold nights.
But what about now? Well, if advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, I think it’s clear. We live in a time where we are a click and an internet connection away from a pool of knowledge vaster than all of the ancient libraries combined. We live in a time shaped by the constant fear of the apocalypse: whether it be through climate change, global epidemics or through our own creation of artificial intelligence. As such, today’s fairytales must be shaped by the shadows of technology and the apocalypse and how we deal and react to them.
Here’s a closer look at how I tried to play this out in Division:
The Soldier is a nod to those many stories from around the world where a nameless, eponymous soldier or samurai character is drawn into a challenge that countless others have failed. Of course, instead of a curse or a glass tower, this time he’s up against three global epidemics.
Dissimilation can be read as a twist on Sleeping Beauty – the idea that someone wants to wake up from virtual reality when everyone is asleep, at least, was an image that reminded me of the Prince walking through the castle of bodies in repose, fighting off the urge to close his eyes before he reached his goal.
In a similar vein to Dissimilation, Please Connect draws upon the fairytale of love at first sight in a society nearly devoid of human contact. And lest you think nothing like this would ever happen, it was actually inspired by a Guardian article back in 2013 entitled “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” Fascinating stuff.
The Grey Wall is probably the most explicitly fairytale-like in its structure. It uses the rule of three (it’s always three brothers, three sisters, three days or nights, three tasks, etc.) to slowly build the protagonist up to confronting the truth of his world. And because this is a dark fairytale and not a Disney movie, it doesn’t end well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beauty examines some of the confusing tropes about beauty in fairytales: that beauty (and ugliness) can be deceiving, but true beauty is in the soul; and that beauty is something only the evil and jealous covet, but beauty is also (somehow) the marker of a truly good person. But I also wanted to use that conflict to bring hope to the terrible struggle of transgender communities in today’s world. I really hope that one day, we truly can meaningfully transcend a lot of social issues.
On the other end of the scale, Lemuria flat out frightens me. Instead of a famine forcing a woodcutter and his wife to abandon their children, it’s an alien invasion. And instead of a gingerbread house, the siblings must choose between an unknown, dangerous lifeline and a gruesome death (perhaps choosing between a witch and starvation would be preferable?)
Finally, Division draws upon the stories of grieving parents who are either mourning the lack of a child or the death of one, and who do interesting and sometimes terrible things with that grief. While nobody bargains away their child or adopts an inch-tall girl they find in a flower, both technology and humanity indelibly shape their journey through loss.
Of course, as my first published book, there are a lot of people to thank, including my amazing beta readers, my literary idols who inspired me to write, the NaNoWriMo Facebook group for their support and the soon-to-be Dr. Aaron Mitchell Brice, my friend and science advisor. And last but most definitely not the least: my family, friends, and readers. Thank you.