Applied Pandemic Fiction
How one writer’s group is coping with isolation during COVID-19
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The summer is coming to a quick close. I’ve already begun seeing red and yellow leaves falling to the floor while out on walks, and the peak summer temperatures up here thankfully seem to have passed. COVID-19 is still a thing, and we’re coming to terms with what that looks like long-term here.
Fortunately, Vermont is handling it well. Most people are wearing masks, and despite some jingoistic thinkpieces about why we’re faring better than most of the country, I think it comes down to the taciturn Vermonter being inherently antisocial and generally preferring to remain at home.
This week, I’ve got an interview with a writer’s group that’s been coping with the pandemic in an interesting way: launching their own series of micro anthologies about the pandemic itself.
Earlier this spring, a writer’s group faced an unexpected challenge: a raging virus that shut down most of the world. The group — comprised of Amit Gupta, Elizabeth Menozzi, James Yu, Sahil Lavingia, Scott Hurff, and Thea Boodhoo — is made up of science fiction writers and tech workers, wanted to do something about their predicament. They launched a micro-anthology, Fever Dreams, a short collection of stories that revolved around the experience of the early efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and what came after:
So in addition to following a theme of What will life be like after COVID-19?, we challenged each of our stories to bring their readers a little bit of hope. The tales that emerged aren’t overly happy or optimistic—that rarely makes good fiction—yet they remind us that new worlds still await.
I spoke with Amit Gupta and James Yu about how they came up with the project and its recently-released sequel project, Bunkerpunk.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How did this project come about?
Amit: It came about about a month ago or maybe a little bit more. We all started to quarantine at home, everyone in the writer’s group is living in a different place, and we all started to get really deep into the news. It was hard to write and it was hard to be productive in that mindspace, as everyone has discovered, but we all found that we were really interested in what was happening in the world and interested in what was going to happen.
I think it was Thea that suggested that we do an anthology around an optimistic future about COVID-19: what the world's going to look like after. That really got all of us excited. It just felt like something that we could do because we were all excited to think about what was going to happen and instead of twiddling our thumbs and watching the news, we could actually be productive.
Tell me a bit about the writing group.
James: This writing group got started, maybe three years ago. Now, the genesis of the group is really from Sahil [Lavingia]. He’s the founder of Gumroad but was trying to get into the writing and publishing world. We started this three years ago and found writers at our level and worked to improve our craft. We try and do it weekly: we submit a thousand words to critique.
We’ve had members come and go over the years, and right now it’s about seven-ish folks who are pretty active now. Some of us are writing novels, some of us are working short stories — Sahil is also working on a nonfiction book. It runs the gamut, but I would say speculative fiction is at the center of the group.
So you guys decided not to just sit around want watch the news of the pandemic. What was the specific idea of coming up with the website and translating the ongoing pandemic into fiction?
James: We all drew on our personal experiences throughout the quarantine. I think that is one of the highlights: everyone is quarantining or sheltering in place differently, right? How does that experience translate into possible stories? We wanted to make it hopeful — I guess hopepunk is kind of the moniker that people are using these days.
We wanted to paint kind of a hopeful picture of what what that could be like, in the future after sheltering in place or during it: what does life look like?
It was a good kick in the butt for us to say “okay, let’s work on something where we can you have an artifact at the end,” and having a website, and online distribution was a key part of that. So we worked on that as well, hand coding the site, putting the care into the design, and getting it out there was important for us.
I’m really fascinated by the traditional science fiction fan community and the tech world. It seems like they’re both doing similar things, but the tech industry has a bit of a different goal with the stories: solving problems through stories.
Amit: I hadn’t thought about it that way. How do you see the traditional view of fandom?
It’s older and a lot of the stories react to themselves or others within fandom and the larger SF canon. This might be my impression because I look at fandom quite a bit, but these communities are all pretty different: SF fandom is different from horror fandom, which is different from YA fandom, and they’re all reacting to one another in their own ways and interpreting technological advances through that lens or experience. It feels to me like in the tech world, people like SF already, but it seems like they’re entering the same arena from a slightly different angle, without the history and baggage that fandom has.
A result of that is that it feels like this is a project that you wouldn’t normally see. This one feels more purpose-driven.
Amit: That’s an interesting take, and I feel like now I want to go through all of our other publications and see if there's a common thread there too. But I definitely feel like for this particular anthology, we had a purpose, that we were feeling really low and pessimistic about what was happening in the world. And I think Thea suggested we try to find a way to find an optimistic lens for to happen. That really felt good to all of us. But I wouldn't say necessarily that all of our fiction has taken that same tack, but there may be something there that we haven't seen.
James: For me, actually coming in, I get the sideways thing because, like I was basically working in tech for over a decade, and I want to get into writing stories, and I thought a speculative fiction would be an easy adjacency, since I have the background and be able to come up with premises pretty easily. Therefore, I would be able to authentically create worlds that weren’t necessarily hard science fiction.
Like Tech Science Fiction.
Amit: Yeah, I think that's probably true. I feel like there'd been lots of alien stories and fantasy stories and more stories that are kind of looking at what does the world look like 10, 20, 30 years in the future when you take the stuff we're building today and extrapolating it from there. We've done more of those.
With the anthology, what was the process like to work together? Did you find writing alongside one another that you were bouncing ideas off of each other, or did the stories reinforce one another as you were writing them?
Amit: I feel like we probably just followed the same structure we did for the rest of our series, which was that we meet once a week. We share the stories and provide feedback for one another, and then do another round of revisions or two. We are doing some stories for another COVID-themed anthology. That one’s more what we’d call “bunkerpunk.” I think that one's a little bit more cross-pollinated, because there's a more directed idea about what these stories will involve. They'll probably all involve bunkering in some way, but in this first anthology, we got our own ideas and got feedback from one another.
Tell me a bit about the technical aspect here. How did you come up with the look and feel and design?
James: We wanted to keep it pretty simple, and since all have a tech background, we basically put together a static-generated site. So we use Jekyll for the site…
For the uninitiated, what does that mean?
James: So not a WordPress site with a database and complicated stuff that requires back-end service. These are basically just clean HTML files that are generated by a program that we can all edit on GitHub. It keeps it simple, and we didn’t need a CMS, and we were technically savvy enough that we could edit it directly. It’s very much hand-created.
I like how it’s minimal and there’s the emphasis on the stories themselves. You’ve also added up downloadable versions.
James: Right. We wanted mobile reading and accessibility to be key. So if you have a mobile device, it’s also pleasant to read.
What's really fascinating about this online model is that you can put together the stories within the group, very quickly. The traditional publishing process takes a lot longer — you can submit a story and not hear back for months. But here, if you take it into your own hands, you have the editorial infrastructure set up so you’re not putting out a first draft, and you can address real-world issues as they’re happening.
James: It felt very natural, because we already had the writing group and sort of the mechanisms for our critiques sessions. This just felt like a natural extension, except like, “oh, we're now all working on stories that are going to be adjacent to one another.” I mean, have you seen many other writing groups doing this? It seems like it would be natural.
No. There are certainly other writers groups out there, but I think a lot of those writers are working to sell their stories somewhere, but I haven’t seen anyone reacting this quickly, and I think that might come down to the technical mindset that you folks have.
James: I mean, we’re lucky enough to have I think the right members as well, to be able to come together on the tech side design side. We have people who have some editorial experience.
Amit: So, to your point about publishing through non-traditional channels. I think when Thea originally suggested it, I also had that same kind of reluctance that you were attributing to like traditional science fiction authors, where we’re like trying to publish these stories, going through all of these revisions and spending months on them, like what’s the point if we’re not getting paid or getting credit for them? It was still fun to do because everyone was doing it together and it felt like the right moment to do it.
If I wrote something, probably every single publication is getting like a thousand stories a day on like COVID-19. It just felt like the only way to do it was to do it ourselves. But there was definitely a bit of pushback internally about whether that was the right way to do it.
Do you worry about the possibility of writing something so relevant in the moment that it won’t be so relevant a month from now?
Amit: I think so, yeah. Like, we were worried about publishing it a week too late and being irrelevant already because things are changing. But since they're all flash fiction, we all wrote them within two or three weeks it seemed like an okay risk to take just put it up there and see what happens.
What's the response been like?
James: We got good response already. We submitted it to Hacker News it actually made the homepage there, which I was actually a little surprised by because I feel like the crossover of fiction there is not super strong. But we got some pretty good responses, it stayed up there on the homepage for like, almost a day, and so we got a bunch of readers just coming in from there and subscribing to our newsletter.
Amit: It’s interesting to look at it as a model for building a following for our writing group. That's not just a traditional mailing list, because I think that's kind of how people fall back on publicity, just getting people to sign up for email. But I think if we can put out things that world are interesting in different ways, we can contribute something back to the community, but also get people paying attention in a way that might be helpful for us as a reading group in the future.
I’ve been in a real rut when it comes to reading things, and it feels like forever that I’ve finished anything, or made any good progress in the pile of books that I’ve been reading.
Often, I find that that’s a moment when I need to shift gears: be realistic about whether or not I’m enjoying what I’m reading, and jettison the things that I’m just not liking. But there’s another tactic: I think I’m a little burned out on science fiction and fantasy, and so I’m using the opportunity to jump tracks completely. I picked up a forthcoming book that’s set to come out in September, The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars by Jo Marchant, which is turning out to be a fascinating look at humanity’s relationship to the night sky, and how that’s changed over time.
Along those lines, I’ve picked up a couple of other books that caught my eye recently: The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez, and Anthony M. Townsend’s Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car, both of which came recommended from some trusted sources, and which look pretty interesting.
Audio lifeline. This is a very interesting piece from Book Riot about the role that audiobooks play for people with disabilities.
Indigenous SF. The New York Times has a great profile of a new movement within SF: indigenous authors telling their own stories in the field.
Mexican Gothic: The Series. Here’s some excellent news: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s excellent novel Mexican Gothic is being turned into a TV series! This is probably my favorite book of the year, and while reading it, I couldn’t help but think that it would make for a great series or film.
New Weir. Andy Weir’s next book is due out next year, and it sounds a lot like his debut, The Martian. The Martian is a great read. His next, Artemis, wasn’t.
Permissible Chinese SF. The Chinese government is encouraging more science fiction films. It’s always a bit difficult to parse the news that comes out of China: more often than not, US and western outlets pick up stories like “China is banning time travel!” — which is generally far off the mark. However, this new paper is apparently coming from the right agencies, and it means that there’ll be more filmmakers turning their talents to SF in one form or another.
Spot that audiobook. This is something to keep an eye on: Spotify is hiring a head of audiobooks, which signals that the audio streaming service is looking to go beyond podcasts. Maybe it’ll be a competitor to Audible? Nick Quah has a bit more of a look into it.
That’s all for now. RL+ readers, you’ll be getting another post in a day or so.