Arkady Martine: Histories of Power

AnnaLinden Weller, who writes fiction as Arkady Martine, was born on April 19, 1985 in New York City, and spent the first 18 years of her life there. She attended the Uni­versity of Chicago, graduating with a BA in religious studies in 2007. She earned a master’s in in classical Armenian studies at the University of Oxford in 2013, and a Ph.D. in history at Rutgers in 2014, with a dissertation on Byzantine imperial agents working on the borders of empire. She most recently completed a master’s in urban and community planning from the University of Maryland. She has lived in Canada, Sweden, and Turkey, and taught at St. Thomas University and Uppsala University. She now works as a policy advisor for the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department of the state of New Mexico.

Martine began publishing short fiction in 2012 and has pub­lished more than 15 stories; “The Hydraulic Emperor” (2018) was a finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award. Debut novel A Memory Called Empire appeared in 2019 and launched the Teixcalaan series; sequel A Desolation Called Peace is forthcoming.

She lives in Santa Fe with her wife, writer Vivian Shaw.

Excerpts from the interview:

“‘Arkady Martine’ has always been an open pseudonym. I have never unlinked my two names, and at this point I am very delib­erate about linking them together. I use the pen name basically as a search-engine disambiguation tool. I want people looking for my fiction to find my fiction first, and I want people looking for my work as an academic or a city planner to find that work first. I might make a different decision if I was starting out now – I might not bother with a pen name – but I’m not profession­ally working in academia any longer. When I was, I wanted my students to have the option to not know me as a writer – they could just deal with me as a professor, like an extension of an institution. That was important for my professionalism. I feel dif­ferently about that as a city planner, because I’m not in a direct position of power over people who are much younger than me. I really like the pen name though, and since I’m stuck with it now, so that’s good. ‘Arkady’ comes from a novel by Chris Moriarty called Spin State, which has a whole bunch of clones all named Arkady. Then I went down a list of last names until I found one that sounded right to go with it. It’s a dactyl, Arkady Martine – it’s nice to say. I imagine that a person who had been born with that name would probably be Russian-French, and I like that. I have Russian ancestry but no French at all. For the last name I picked the middle of the alphabet because I thought it would be good for shelf placement. That simple, and that mercenary. The fun part of Arkady is that if you use the Russian nickname system, you get some beautiful ones, like Arkasha – I have some friends who call me that, which I find delightful. I don’t think there are other current Arkadys writing SF (of course, there are the historical ones, like Arkady Strugatsky). Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why did you pick a gender-neutral name?’ I tell them, ‘It’s only gender neutral in the sense that if I were in Russia I would be a man, but in Britain it’s a girl’s name. It’s gender neutral because you’re confused, not because it’s gender neutral intrinsically.’

“My parents are classical musicians. My mother is a professor of violin at Juilliard, and my father, until he retired, played in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, so I grew up in the classical music circles of the east coast, which bear a surprising resemblance to science fiction circles in some ways. I think in the 1930s a lot of the same people were in both: European Jews who had moved to America and settled on the east coast and the west coast were basically playing classical music and inventing the Anglophone discipline of science fiction at the same time. For me, when I first got involved in the literary SF/F community, it was this sudden realization: ‘Oh, I know everybody here.’ I didn’t know anybody, but I knew all these people because I’d grown up with these people. They’re kind-of my people. They’re just doing a different art.

“I have a very deep and loving relationship to my parents and my brother, and because they’re artists, they’ve always understood that I was doing some kind of art, though writing was not what I originally planned to do with my life. I’m not really one of those people who dreamed of becoming a writer. I like writing, I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve always written things. When I was tiny, like under ten, I did think, ‘Ah, I shall be a writer,’ because I got a lot of praise for writing small things when I was very little, and that was great. I was fairly good at it, until I discovered it was work. Then it was like, ‘Why would I bother?’ I just like reading stories, and I’ve read science fiction and fantasy since I was very young. And as a kid and a young adult I got into fandom and writing fanfiction for my own pleasure.

“In my early twenties, in the early 2000s, I accidentally became friends with some people (via following their LiveJournals) who were just breaking into the SF/F scene. The person who’s the most important in this story is Elizabeth Bear, whom I became friends with when I was 18 years old. This is hilarious now. She was one of my bridesmaids when I got married two years ago. We’ve had a very long friendship. Almost two decades. Anyway, I was listening to and reading these people who were writing books I really admired, and they were also talking about craft in a way that fascinated me, and which I had opinions about. I had this strange moment of thinking, ‘I have to be really good at writing so they’ll take me seriously when I say things about craft. Clearly I must get good, right now.’ That’s why I started writing original fiction, as opposed to fan fiction, which I’d done that with maintaining some element of your own self-boundaries? I’m also interested in concepts of rulership, which show up more in my longer stuff, but is woven into most of my short fiction as well. What makes a good ruler, whether that’s a king or a president or a head of a company or a commit­tee member? I’m interested in how the exercise of power can be used well. If it can be used well at all. That’s a long-running fascination that does not come from the current political moment – that’s been a focus for my whole life. I’m interested in power and systems of government, of organizing society. I’m interested in good kings and bad kings, and the two good emperors in a row problem, which is: if you do hereditary succession, you almost never get two good emperors in a row. You might occasionally get an absolute ruler who’s good at it (though it’s still not a good idea to have one!), but if the next guy’s just good, not brilliant, the whole thing falls apart. He might not even be good – he might be shit. Historically, there are a couple of people who might end up on a list of pretty decent emperors, but I don’t think there are such things as real good emperors, because, despite my fascina­tion with it, I do not think autocratic, one-person rule can ever be the foundation of a stable society. People crack under that kind of pressure. Being responsible for just a company is enough to create sociopaths, but what if you were responsible for a country? Autocracy gives you certain advantages, like being able to make decisions quickly and without second-guessing yourself, that make for effective government – but effective does not equal good, useful, or helpful for humans.

A Memory Called Empire is the fictional version of all the stuff I did my dissertation and later, a postdoc about. It is full of all the ideas I was obsessed with for most of my twenties, like, how does an empire impose narrative? How do people that narrative is being imposed upon reuse and reshape it? My dissertation was on letters from Byzantine diplomats stationed on the fron­tier to each other, and how they used the forms of letter-writing, which are very specifically codified in Byzantine culture, to reinforce and make real again the narrative of Byzantium as the center of the world – the ecumenical, all-eternal empire. When we look at other historical records that men­tion these diplomats, it is evident that they were doing very syncretic, very embedded realpolitik on the ground, where they have to react to local conditions, and they’re very good at it. But that experience is clearly existentially threatening to their sense of how the world works, so there’s this overlayer in their letters of their attempt to preserve their imperial narrative. I was fascinated by that – so I wrote my dissertation about it. And then I did a postdoc at Uppsala University in Swe­den about historiography in the same period and place. I wrote most of A Memory Called Empire during that postdoc, while I was thinking about questions like “how do historiographies of the same event represent different attempts to control this narrative?’

“I wanted to explore that more emotionally and directly than I could in academic work. I always felt very emotional and direct about it, and you have to take emotionality and some directness out of professional academic writing. I also had this piece of terrible juvenilia from my mid-twenties – a proto-novel which had one good concept, and that one good concept was a protagonist with the ghost of the person who used to have her job in her head. A Memory Called Empire came out of combining those two ideas – but instead of a supernatural ghost, I wanted a technological one, in a story set so far-future that it might as well be secondary-world fantasy. This is something I really love about far-future science fiction – it lets you get closer to big, complicated, nasty questions without having to draw a direct line between now and then. You don’t have to interact straight-on with the extant, real world versions of those questions, but you can get closer to their core. You can bring in the general case and then make it specific in a way that has never happened in this world.”

Interview design by Francesca Myman. Photo by Arley Sorg.

Read the full interview in the January 2020 issue of Locus.

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