Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work. His novels and over 60 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com
He recently sat to be interviewed by Ari Hernández, María Jenny Vélez, Edgar Nieves, Frances González, Javier Cruz, Hector Mercado Soucy, Hilda Silva, Frank Flanagan, and Loretta Collins Klobah.
Your futuristic novels frequently include prominent characters who are the descendants of Caribbean islanders. What was it that inspired you to approach SciFi from a Caribbean perspective?
I was inspired to write Caribbean characters into the work I was doing by the fact that I grew up in the islands, and my biological father was Grenadian. I had a wide variety of friends and family who had Caribbean roots growing up. SciFi didn’t have a lot representation of that. As someone who was light-skinned but bi-racial, I was used to being in a culture with a wide variety of skin tones, but wasn’t seeing that in my SciFi much. I didn’t, much to my shock, realize this until I was much older. I had a scales-falling-from-the-eyes moment when I read Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling. He was a white American cyberpunk (a subgenre of SF) writer who set a book in Grenada. When I encountered it, I was so stunned because it exposed a whole gap in mind’s eye: why shouldn’t there be SciFi with Caribbean settings and heroes? And I saw all the stuff that I felt Bruce should have added! After that, I started drawing pictures of starships docked in St. Thomas. I later read Octavia Butler, and that confirmed to me that SciFi could be different than a lot of what I was reading.
When I got very serious about tackling writing and started studying what writers online were saying, in the mid-90s, there were writers who were ‘professionals’ in the field giving advice to new writers who said things like ‘never put in diverse characters, readers won’t have it’ and worse. I was in the middle of trying to add more diversity to my writing, but the pro-white forces were dauntingly everywhere. Some people advised me to write more ‘regular’ and then, once established, to ‘experiment.’ I was 19 and 20 at the time, still learning so much and still unformed.
Why did the Caribbean (or a Caribbean-related planet) seem to you like such a natural fit for speculative and futuristic literature?
I was 19 when I wrote ‘The Fish Merchant,’ my first story that threw away all the advice I was being exposed to. It felt radical and scary and utterly unsellable, but the moment I finished it, I knew something interesting had happened. It was set in China, had a Caribbean cyborg, and first contact with aliens was going to happen outside the West! It was apparent to me that China was ascendant but barely being featured in fiction, so I spent weeks working on the little bit of Mandarin in it and trying to do all the research I could. I made mistakes, but it was the first step forward to what would become my novel Crystal Rain, which I started a few years later, set much later and further away in a Caribbean-settled world cut off from Earth.
For me the idea here wasn’t so much whether it was a natural fit. There’s no question. You look at the melding of the fantastic and literary in the Caribbean, and it goes all the way back to duppy stories, Anancy stories, and the strong oral traditions there. The Caribbean, ever a place between land and ocean, astride empires old and new, has always straddled imagination and the real effortlessly. Edgar Mittleholtzer, Erna Brodber, Robert Antoni, all blended genres in their writing. I knew from the get go that the Caribbean could handle the fantastic. It has from the beginning. But, could SF/F, the genre in the bookstores and magazines that once published people like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, handle the Caribbean?
To try and get a book in the SF/F shelves with the Caribbean in it? That was the uphill battle. I’d been told in many ways that it wasn’t a fit. But I felt there was a big gap in the SciFi genre, and I wanted to fill it. A novel with a culture my readers were unfamiliar with, featuring dialect and food foreign to them, and with no white people in it? Pitching and selling it was uphill. But I felt it was something that needed to exist as I was first trying to write these initial stories and novel fragments.
Keep in mind, at this point I didn’t know Nalo Hopkinson was on the shelves, who was doing this, as well. I wasn’t introduced to her as the rural Ohio bookshelves weren’t carrying her. I found out about her amazing work after I went to Clarion and wrote my first few stories like ‘The Fish Merchant.’ Once I met Nalo by email, and she published one of my first short stories, it further helped me feel less insane about trying to force open this space on the dedicated SF/F genre space on the bookshelves. Nalo was my godmother and encouragement.
Since you are a native son of the Caribbean, how did living on islands and sailing on the oceans influence the way you later imagined, as a writer, the futures of humankind and of the Earth?
What is an island but the last stop in a long supply chain, like a space station? An enclosed place where people are very aware of how changes affect everything? Islands also have to be players in a global scene where they have very little power. The islands, with their harbors, are often host to elements from all over the world, cosmopolitan in passing in a way that other landscapes aren’t. Islands are the most affected by climate change and heavy weather. Growing up in this landscape gave me the ability to see the world from a very different perspective, and I think that suffuses my work even when it’s not obviously using Caribbean settings or characters.
Who were your mentors and what was your formal or informal education process like when you were becoming serious about have a writer’s life and/ or emerging as a writer?
For all its faults, one of the cool things about SciFi literature is that the author culture has a very strong tradition of paying things forward. If you have the resources to plug into it and attend some of the functions, that is. Because academia had shunned it as a commercial genre back in the day, an informal set of workshops and gatherings at SciFi conventions offered me a great deal of access to established writers who helped me out. Tim Powers, whom I met at the Clarion workshop, a six-week residency workshop, told me about Nalo Hopkinson. That led to a lifelong friendship, and Nalo published one of my first short stories.
Given this situation, when you were developing your skills and beginning to publish, how important was it for you to work in the context of a community of writers? If you participated in communities of writers as a developing writer, were they mostly collectives of established mainstream U.S. SciFi writers, local writing groups, or Caribbean writers?
Having a community was extremely important, but it was my community of peers. At the time no one knew who we were. Now my friends have TV shows, or are the editors of the magazines I desperately wanted to publish in! I am pretty geographically isolated; I live in the middle of soybean and corn country, in northwest Ohio. So the internet and travel became the tools I used to find my cohort.
Over time, I also found other writers doing what I was trying to do, bring an outside voice. I have connected to other Caribbean writers, but that has been more recent. For a long while, I was publishing stuff, and no one realized I was rooted in the Caribbean because I had moved around so much, and I looked white and was living in the USA. I also ran up against the wall of finding it hard to get publishers to promote in the Caribbean: they’re familiar with their own networks. And on top of that, some of the venues that were interested in diverse voices flat out balked at the SciFi thing. That was in 2006. It’s changing, now. Slowly, but it is.
Now, I’m in my late 30s and have been in this game almost twenty years since I sold my first short story. I sit at the intersection of cohorts of writers interested in diverse voices, Caribbean futures, Caribbean literature, and ecological fiction. And in the last five years, I’ve started to get more notice as a Caribbean writer, in and of itself, which has led to me meeting amazing talents throughout the region. I can’t even explain how valuable that is to me as it leads me to new work, thoughts, research and challenges.
What type of research have you done for the Xenowealth series of novels and the series of near future eco-fiction novels that portend an era of catastrophic natural disasters or the changing of coastal areas and land forms? (Hurricane Fever, Artic Rising, The Apocalypse Ocean)
I should keep a bibliography of stuff I read. I started doing that formerly a year ago. I remember for the eco-fiction I read a ton of IPCC reports, and the US Navy Task Force Climate Change had interesting public documents. For the Xenowealth books, I read a lot of history books, including a translation of Bernardino de Sahagún’s study of Aztec myths. As an author many years removed from university, I probably read more texts and study more than I ever did as a student. It’s just more interesting to be self-directed. Interesting notes go into a document for me to refer to later when working on a book.
The father-son relationship between John and Jerome is gentle and thoughtful (Crystal Rain). Is this an aspirational model for fathering in the Caribbean, and the future in general?
It was. I didn’t have kids at the time, and my own relationship with my biological father was nothing like this.
SciFi imagines a future in space, where humans still hold power over all other beings, or are the lawmakers. This seems to be different in your novel Ragamuffin, in which humans are scattered throughout the worlds of the ‘Benevolent Satrapy’, and have conformed to being ruled by an alien species with ‘advanced technology.’ The relationship between the Satrapy and the humans is that of the colonizer and the colonized.
Yes, absolutely. In SciFi the assumption is that even if aliens show up and oppress us, an uprising will fix things. It buys into the belief of secret superiority and the assumption that many whites have that if they had been enslaved they would have gotten out from it. In the Xenowealth, the oppressors have hundreds of years of domination, and uprisings often just got everyone killed. How do you work inside of that? I wanted to show more complexity. And I wanted to look at what came next? After throwing the revolution, the humans still have to work with many further oppressors, or they can just try to do what was done to them.
I wrote a story, ‘Pale Blue Memories’ where I am more explicit about my critique of this assumption that a white man could just lead the uprising and undo the structural weight of a plantocracy overnight. One reviewer was so upset about this they complained that I was too mean to the Nazis in it, they identified so hard against the premise! It’s endemic in SciFi movies and literature, though.
In Ragamuffin, futuristic technology seems to have a more important role in plot and character development than it does in the deep-space steam-punk world of Crystal Rain. Parts of Ragamuffin’s plot take place in spaceships with characters like Nashara, who have bodily modifications (bullet-proof skin), and Captain Jamar Sinjin, a cyborg.
It’s more obvious in the next book, but it’s under the surface in the first one, as well, I think. Can a modified body challenge construction of race? I think the horror movie ‘Get Out’ grapples with this, and Dr. Lewis Gordon speaks about how race is more than just the nature of the bodies they’re placed in (to spoil the movie), but history, culture, movement, awareness, and so much more.
As someone who looks white, is interacted with as if they are white by white folk, but considers myself to be bi-racial, to be Caribbean, and is often interacted with as if so by people who pay attention to how I perceive myself, I think identity is more complex than body modification.
But, I am fascinated by the nature of what the implications are for our futures. We clothe ourselves, both for utility and to signal who we are and as a result of cultural pressures. We use glasses to modify our image. We replace our joints, our bones, with better ones. We use paper to hold our thoughts, making it an external brain as well as a form of communication. We do the same to audio. We use devices to look up the breadth of human knowledge and talk to others on the other side of the planet, and to offload remembering when to pick up the groceries. How much further will we go?
Often in the Caribbean context, we have seen discussions of the author’s responsibility to shed light on our traumatic histories, one project being the rescuing and re-telling of the past (half-told stories).
My own alchemy is that I am very responsive to that. I talked about the history of colonialism and how I bring that into some of my books to show the oppressive weight of it. At the same time, though, I am very interested in the future. I believe that if we don’t imagine our futures, other people will for us. Who will that be? Is our future to be selling paradise to tourists always? That’s a future that many would be stuck into if we don’t have a voice.
I’m somewhat worried about the nature of only having a narrative of the traumatic history because, while we do need to know where we’re coming from to know where we are going, as Marley sang, I think we also need stories about going. That constant probing of the trauma tends to be welcomed by a lot of academia, and I’m always worried about that being a different kind of tourism for outsiders and the Western academics that promote the hell out of it. It’s misery tourism when it becomes that.
However, I in no way am talking about erasure. A lot of westerners use some of the rhetoric of ‘letting go of the past’ in order to justify whitewashing or ignoring the ugly trauma, you see it by so-called ex pats (these are white immigrants, I hate the term ex pats, no one ever calls a Central American living in NYC an ex pat, but they call a Brit that). That should never be done, it should be looked at, taught, examined, and grappled with by creatives and everyone else. As I mentioned, I was under-taught that trauma and history and had to make up for that in reading after I graduated. I just think there is a place for more stories of our possibilities, more kinds of stories, for the Caribbean and from it, than just those of trauma.
Pepper, who appears in so much of your writing, must be a favorite out of those characters that you have created, as he is one of ours, as well. Is there a particular person or Sci-fi character that inspired you to create Pepper? Is he a kind of space pirate? The name puts us in mind of the kinds of monikers you might find for “rude bwoys” in Jamaica or right here at home in Puerto Rico.
I can’t speak to the whole region, but where I grew up every newspaper story had someone’s name with a moniker in quotes in the middle. Reginald “Dot-man” Smith’s shot on goal won the game. Pepper comes out of that tradition, just like I thought the starship names came out of all the taxis with inventive names airbrushed on them made sense to me. I don’t know if Pepper is a space pirate, but he’s a Steppin’ Razor badass for sure.
Given the catastrophic effect in the last few years of the Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean and the disaster capitalism that ran rampant in their aftermaths, do you feel a bit prophetic now about your novel Hurricane Fever (2014), which predicted a near future in which Cat 5 hurricanes will be the norm in this region?
I didn’t think we would have a season like the 2017 season for a while yet. In that novel, the Caribbean is concerned with hardening itself against heavy weather. When I was first talking about this stuff, it was not common at a literary conference. I was at the VI Lit Fest recently, and topics included round tables on restorative ecology and weather hardening. Taxi drivers were wondering how you could go off grid. It’s a conversation that needs happening, and I do feel prophetic, but also devastated that I was prophetic.
What is the best advice that you have for young writers based in, or culturally linked, to the Caribbean?
Find a cohort, write the stories, don’t assume that you’re the only one that would be interested or that you have to mold yourself to any expectation about what it ‘should’ be. But at the same time, find some peers who can critique you, so you can get better. Always be trying to improve.
Ari Hernández, María Jenny Vélez, Edgar Nieves, Frances González, Javier Cruz, Hector Mercado Soucy, Hilda Silva, and Frank Flanagan are students in the Graduate Program of the Department of English, College of Humanities, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus; Loretta Collins Klobah is a Full Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Her poetry collection Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (Peepal Tree) received the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize in poetry and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for best first book. Ricantations (Peepal Tree, 2018) was a British Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation