Annalee Newitz: Reprogramming
Annalee Newitz was born May 6, 1969 in Santa Monica CA, and grew up in Huntingon Beach and Irvine. Newitz attended UC Berkeley, where they completed a Ph.D. in English and American Studies in 1998; their dissertation was published as Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (2006). Newitz began freelance writing in the mid-’90s, and has written full-time since 1999, mostly as a journalist focusing on technology and science. They wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for many years, serving as culture editor from 2000-2004, and was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship for 2002-2003, serving as a research fellow at MIT. Newitz was a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation from 2004-2005.
Newitz founded SF website io9 in 2008, and served as editor-in-chief for its entire tenure. io9 was combined with Gizmodo in 2015, and Newitz left shortly after to join Ars Technica, where they are Tech Culture Editor. They co-founded print magazine other with Charlie Jane Anders, and also collaborated with Anders on anthology She’s Such a Geek (2006). Non-fiction book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction appeared in 2013.
While best known for non-fiction, Newitz has published a handful of short stories, beginning with “The Gravity Fetishist” (2010). Debut SF novel Autonomous came out in September 2018.
Excerpts from the interview:
“When I was young my family moved to the planned community of Irvine, which Jean Baudrillard described in an essay as being a ‘terrifying simulated environment.’ It was a totally planned community, which means everything in it had been determined by committee, and there were a lot of rules like, for example, McDonald’s couldn’t have the golden arches. You couldn’t have signage that was too big. That meant all of the shopping centers looked kind of the same. Also you couldn’t paint your own house – that was taken care of by the Irvine Company, so every housing tract had the same color scheme. When I was growing up, my housing tract was dark brown and light brown, and they later changed it to sort of a nougat and gray. It was like growing up in a science fiction novel. You were not allowed to change things. You couldn’t put solar cells on the roof, and you couldn’t change the lawn. It was supposed to be utopian, by reducing the visual pollution and making everything look clean and matching, so you wouldn’t have conflict between the neighbors about the colors of the houses, or fences. The idea was that it would reduce conflict and be this beautiful community. Obviously it wasn’t. Growing up there was super weird.
“I grew up during the heyday of punk, sort of postpunk and ska, and a lot of kids became punks or metalheads, because they needed some way to not conform. Everything was so conformist – it was like that scene in A Wrinkle in Time where they go to the world where all the kids are bouncing balls at the same time. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s where we live.’ Luckily, I had science fiction and fantasy to read – that was my form of escapism when I was a kid. I found other nerdy kids to play D&D with, and we’d all escape through that. My parents are both English teachers. My mom taught junior high and high school, and most of her life she taught at schools in low-income areas. She started her career teaching in Watts right around the time of the Watts riots, and the whole time I was growing up she was teaching in areas that were pretty much entirely Latino, sort of barrio areas. That was what she really believed in, getting kids interested in reading who didn’t feel like reading mattered to them. Even though she was this little white southern lady, she somehow managed to engage all these kids. It was pretty cool. My dad taught community college. Literature was a big deal in our house, and we didn’t have a TV. We had a ginormous bookshelf in our living room that my dad built himself. It literally covered an entire wall. We had a living room that was two stories, because it went up to the second floor, so it was two stories of books.
“My parents really encouraged me to read. They took me to the library a lot and I discovered science fiction at my library, basically because I had read everything in the YA section and I didn’t want to go to the adult section yet. One summer a kindly librarian put out a small shelf that was labeled science fiction. It was maybe 30 books, and I found this anthology called Mutants that was edited by Robert Silverberg, a collection of stories about mutants, which I really identified with. I was like, ‘What is this awesomeness?’ It’s called science fiction. I read The Martian Chronicles, and I got full-bore into science fiction. I would seek out the sci-fi section at bookstores. That was actually okay for a while, but when I got into high school, my parents started to get really nervous about it. They were concerned that I was immature and was never going to read literature, because of course they would prefer me to be reading Faulkner and Jane Austen and things like that. They really discouraged me, and it took a couple years, and then when I was 16, I started reading literature and they were very happy about that.
“I was in the English department at Berkeley, and about halfway through my PhD, which was going to be about medieval literature, I discovered Star Trek through a friend of mine. We were both stoners, and we found each other in the graduate program. He said, ‘You’ve got to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ I hadn’t had a TV, ever. I’d watched a lot of movies, but never watched TV, and I watched it and said, ‘That’s awesome. Fuck this whole literature thing.’ I love pop culture and I love science fiction. I changed the course of my studies and I wound up doing my dissertation on representations of monsters in pop culture. It was the source of a rift with my family that has never healed. There were a lot of other problems with my family, believe me, but that was the last straw, and we barely talked to each other after that. To them it represented the fact that I didn’t want to be an academic, which was what they wanted for me.
“While I was in grad school I co-founded an online ‘zine called Bad Subjects where I wrote about pop culture and the politics of pop culture, so I had already been doing a lot of journalism on my own. Now they call it blogging, but at the time they called it ‘making a ‘zine because it was the ’90s, but it was on the Internet. It got a lot of attention because it was one of the first online magazines of any kind. I wanted to be published, and I couldn’t get anyone to publish me, so I decided to just publish myself. Then I started freelancing. It wasn’t overnight – it took me years of self-publishing in Bad Subjects before my writing was good enough to be published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
“I started doing a column called Techsploitation about the Bay Area tech scene at the turn of the century. That was fun, and I learned a lot. I trained myself to be a tech writer, or more like a tech commentator. I would talk a lot about how technology and culture were affecting each other, and that was really fun. I spent several years as a staffer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Then I got a fellowship at MIT, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, and kind of retrained as a science journalist. It sounds like tech and science journalists are the same thing, but they actually cover really different areas, so I had to do more self-educating, which was really fun. Since then I mostly have written about science. I write about tech too, but not as much as I once did. The crossover is there, especially with biotech and some of the stuff I write about in my novel, but a lot of the times the science I’m interested in, like environmental science, geoscience, and archaeology, you can use technology to do them, but tech isn’t the point. I founded io9, partly because I wanted a place to write science journalism that was speculative, and I finally found it by making it. I got to work with Charlie Jane Anders, and that was great. Now I’m working at Ars Technica, where I cover science again. My whole career has been tricking people into letting me write about cool shit. So far it’s working. I hope it keeps working.
“I’ve always been a fan of fiction, and a voracious fiction reader, but as a writer my trajectory has been toward non-fiction. I did write some fiction in high school, and I wrote poetry as well, but it was a dead end. I got super into writing non-fiction instead. I love writing the truth when I can, and helping people understand the reality of how the universe works, which is what science journalism is about. I was always writing about stuff that could be science fiction, but I liked to keep it in the realm of, ‘Let’s speculate very realistically about this.’ One of the things that was fun about writing for io9 was that I got to bridge the gap, whereas before, when I was writing for Wired and Popular Science, I couldn’t get too speculative. I could write stuff that was fun and futuristic, but it had to be grounded in what’s happening now, or in the next year. Once I was at io9, I was able to start writing articles to cover a subject and say what this might mean in 30 years, where would things go if this mouse experiment turned out to be relevant to people, what would it mean for our brains?
“I started writing fiction because I wanted to tell stories about people. A lot of my non-fiction writing has to do with biotech and environmental stuff, but the results of the experiments won’t be known for decades, or even centuries. We’re at a stage where we understand how the carbon cycle works, but we’re really at the dawn of that understanding. In 300 or 400 years we might be like, great, ‘We finally have enough data to really understand how the carbon cycle works.’ It may not be too late to save the environment – it’s hard to say. We might be in a state where we can intervene in a productive way instead of just accidentally screwing everything up.
“I finally reached a point, around 2009, where I thought, ‘I’m going to write fiction.’ I started out by writing short stories and very quickly started on Autonomous. I had an early, ugly, sad version in 2010. It lived on a USB drive that I got from the SyFy Channel that just said “SyFy.” I stuck it on my bookshelf and every once in a while I would look at it and say, ‘I wrote some SyFy.’ I got really serious a couple of years ago when Tor approached me and said, ‘Do you have a novel?’
“I believe that people are more influenced by culture and social cues than they’re willing to admit, even people who are loners and live out in the middle of nowhere. One way of looking at that is to think of it as programming. It’s not the same as computer programming – it’s not what you do with a robot. It’s cultural. The more we understand stereotype priming, or the ways that cultural knowledge helps you succeed or not, or how much education plays into how much money you’re able to make later in life – the more we understand how culture changes who we are, and changes our destiny. I wanted to tweak people who think the thing that makes us different from robots is that we’re not programmed and we have free will. I just don’t think that’s true. Of course we have choices. Our choices are limited by what we understand, and we can’t choose things that we don’t know exist. Occasionally people choose to do things they’ve heard of as being bad, like when people chose to be gay in the 19th century – that was a forbidden thing – but no one ever chooses to do something that is an absolute unknown. (I’m sure there’s some amazing exception and people will tell me about it.) My dissertation was about how pop culture reflects changes in the economic fortunes of people. We’ve had different periods in US history – times of great affluence, depressions, recessions – and during those periods, stories change. The stories teach people about what sort of expectations to have and what’s possible, even when the stories are about monsters and robots – maybe even more so, because when you watch or read a story that is fantastical, it can get under your skin more because it’s not real. I don’t have to defend a terrible ideology – they’re just dragons. They’re not gay, they’re just vampires who have to drink blood in a really sensual way.”
[Edited in 2019 to correct pronouns.]
Interview design and author photo by Francesca Myman. Read the complete interview in the October 2017 issue of Locus Magazine.