Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Elly Bangs?
I’m a Seattle-based science fiction and fantasy author. I’ve been writing stories and novels since I was a kid, but I only started seriously sending my work out into the world in 2017; around that time I was lucky enough to find a day job that lets me scrape by while still leaving me time to write. Since then I’ve had about a dozen stories out in publications including Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. What else? I live with my partner and two cats. I treasure my friendship with my Clarion West class. I enjoy bicycling, tinkering with circuitry, and baking pies — though not at the same time.Your new novel, Unity, is due to be published by Tachyon in April. It looks rather interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
Unity is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk science fiction thriller. It centers on Danae, a woman who carries the combined memory of hundreds of people, on her quest to find and reconnect with the collective consciousness from which she was traumatically severed years ago. To get there she’ll have to traverse the desolate and balkanized post-American Southwest, on the eve of a new (and perhaps final) world war, pursued by forces that want her dead — or worse. The story alternates perspectives between her, the remorse-stricken mercenary she hires to protect her and her lover along the way, and a ghost from her past. It’s a meditation on memory, identity, trauma, and human connection — with laser gun fights, underwater cities, and doomsday weapons.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Collective consciousness has always captured my imagination. The concept has so many philosophical implications, and yet I’ve almost never seen it explored to my satisfaction. Humans are such social creatures — in some ways we behave like hive minds — and yet the whole human condition is defined by how hard it is for us to exchange thoughts and experience with each other, share common memories and understandings, and dissolve barriers between self and other. I think we can learn a lot about ourselves just by imagining what it might be like to overcome those limitations. To my mind, that’s science fiction’s greatest power, and it’s what inspires me most. There’s a universe of insight to gain by deeply imagining even one small but fundamental change to the mechanics of the world we know.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve been in love with science fiction and fantasy for as far back as I can remember — probably starting with A Wrinkle in Time. I dream of writing a book that does for someone else as much as that one did for me. From there I dove into Bradbury’s short fiction; from him into Ursula LeGuin and Philip K. Dick; from them to everyone.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
It’s hard work, it’s extremely daunting to do for the first time, and it’s marvelous. It’s been a delight and an honor to work with people who believe in this novel as much as I do, and it’s immeasurably stronger for all the feedback and collaboration of my agent, Russell Galen, and my editors at Tachyon, especially Jaymee Goh. A novel needs good critique to grow all the way up.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I love using mathematical patterns as structural constraints in my writing, so I use a lot of elaborate color-coded spreadsheets, charts, and formulae. They’re good for balancing multiple POVs, keeping up a good chapter rhythm, helping me figure out what the story needs to do next, or just measuring my progress. They’re also an excellent source of procrastination.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve known this was my calling since I was about ten years old. When I look back, I’m proud of my young self for doing the work, and I’m also glad I didn’t realize how much room I had to improve. Then again, a year from now I’ll probably feel exactly the same way about the writing I’m doing today.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I honestly think this is the most exciting moment there’s ever been to be working in this field. We talk about the mid-20th century as the Golden Age of science fiction, but it also laid down a lot of artificial limitations on what kinds of stories are allowed to be told, and how, and who’s allowed to tell them. We’re escaping those limits right now like never before. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are coming out of their silos and forming a rich and contiguous whole; plot and prose conventions are less and less law; authors of color, disabled authors, women, queer and trans authors are leading the charge and publishing books that are just mind-blowingly good. As a queer trans woman I feel a lot more at home in today’s speculative fiction community than I would have even ten or twenty years ago, and I also feel like there’s more room than ever to do the kinds of things with my writing that I most love to do: to show love to well-worn tropes and demolish them at the same time, to mix genres, and to work with complicated emotion.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a lot of things at once. Unity may be ripe for sequels in the near future, depending on its reception, but my next big project is a trilogy of fantasy novels hinging on a magical catastrophe unfolding in the western USA. I’m also hoping to turn out some short stories in the lull between novels.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
It would depend on the person and the context, but I will say there’s only one book I habitually keep extra copies of so I can push it on people, and that’s Paul Auster’s gorgeously-written epistollary dystopia, In the Country of Last Things.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m unusual in many ways. I once rode a bicycle alone from Seattle to the Panama Canal. I was raised in a New Age cult. I think David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune is a great film.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
A vaccine, any and all deities willing. Second to that, I’m excited to find out what the world thinks of Unity, and the next thing after it, and the next. I hope to have a lot to share this year.