Unless you've carefully sorted through both the awards lists (her story "When the Apricots Bloom" was a Barry Award finalist) and the publishing news (she's the editor for the new "young adult" imprint from Poisoned Pen Press, the Poisoned Pencil), or been edited by her already (25 years of substantive editing!), you may not have crossed paths with Ellen Larson.
We'll all have the chance to enjoy her work later this year, when her own mystery IN RETROSPECT reaches publication from Five Star in November. But Larson goes well beyond crafting a mystery -- a time-travel murder mystery! -- by drawing from powerful science fiction traditions and breaking ground under conditions firmly her own. We're excited to welcome her here for a thoughtful journey into her world. (Make sure you read all the way to the end, for more news and a way to participate!)
Me, Myself, and the Other
I first heard about the Other as a character type in fiction as a kid in college, studying comparative literature and learning how to write. At first I thought it was strange that characters who were by definition alienated from society would work in a medium that depends so much on reader identification. Until, of course, I realized how many readers identify with the sense of alienation. Me included.
At thirty-three, my sense of Otherness in combination with my love of science fiction led me to the conclusion that I should live on Mars, where clearly I would feel more at home. The urge turned out to be surprisingly inescapable, so I left my beloved upstate New York home, eventually landing in Cairo, Egypt. Which was as close as I could get to Mars.
In Cairo I was, of course, still the Other. With my clothing, my culture, my experiences, my eye color, my goals in life I was never going to be confused as an average member of Egyptian society. Which turned out to be unexpectedly liberating, because no one even bothered to try to get me to conform (a main source of conflict for fictional and real Others). I was a different type of Other, and it was wonderful. The society I had been so at odds with was far away, so the sense of alienation disappeared. Fifteen invaluable years in Egypt (shokran, Misreen) allowed me to develop a life-long passion for differences, for Otherness, because it allowed me to understand that underneath our differences, we are all the Same.
Because of my real-life experiences, my writing often features societies that are not my own. Writing science fiction allows me to imagine a society that is out of my own time, one that provides the background I need to tell the story I want to tell. My personal approach as a writer involves getting rid of whatever prejudices and limitations present my own society that I don’t want to be bothered by, so that I can free up my protagonist to battle what I perceive to be those underlying and universal challenges of being human. Which is why I’m not so interested in writing the kind of science fiction that focuses on alien beings and intergalactic conflicts.
My upcoming science fiction murder mystery, IN RETROSPECT (Nov. 2013 Five Star - Gale Cengage), is set in post-apocalyptic Turkey far in the future. For this book I not only changed societal norms, but I literally sank North America and twisted Europe into a pretzel. I intermingled such races and cultures that remained and built a new one. I changed the climate. Thus the literary decks are clear to say anything about any topic I wish, without the need to bow to history or transient social conventions. So I built a world with a simple set of political norms; where science is advanced beyond our 21st century experience; and where certain young women of petite stature can time travel.
Merit, my protagonist, is a 30th century Other. With her working-class roots, she feels inferior and out-of-place when, as a child, she is chosen to be attuned for time travel. Even though she succeeds in becoming an elite Retrospector, she overcompensates for her underlying sense of inadequacy and becomes arrogance. As the book begins, Merit is most assuredly alienated—from her enemies, the Rasakans, for whom she is forced to work, and from her own people, the Oku, who, exhausted by the war they lost, just want to find a way to peacefully reconstruct their lives. But Merit cannot forget and she will not conform. So she exists, ghost-like on the fringes of society—until she is faced with the dilemma of having to investigate the murder of the Oku general who surrendered to the Rasakans; a murder she would gladly have committed herself.
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Beth adds: I am already haunted by Merit, from an advance read of Ellen Larson's book. Her choice of concept artist Mike Sissons for the book trailer ... well, you've got to see it. And you can! Larson is currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the making of the book trailer for IN RETROSPECT. Take a look at this exciting project -- there's still time to take part, too.