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Unveiling ‘The Vela’: An interview with Becky Chambers, S. L. Huang and Yoon Ha Lee (Part 1)

"The Vela" is a serial speculative fiction story, but it addresses the current refugee crisis and climate change (courtesy of Serial Box).

Reads desk editor Shana Hadi interviewed acclaimed speculative fiction authors Becky Chambers, SL Huang and Yoon Ha Lee, who have written “The Vela” (a Serial Box Original story released today, Wednesday, March 6) alongside Rivers Solomon; the concept was created by Lydia Shamah.

“The Vela” is a space opera that examines the complicated issues of the refugee crisis, climate change and more through the powerful lens of speculative fiction. Orphan, refugee and soldier-for-hire Asala Sikou searches for a missing refugee ship and uncovers a universe-shattering secret that forces her to decide: In a dying world where good and evil are far from black and white, who deserves to survive?

A direct link to Serial Box’s stunning 11-episode first season of “The Vela” is available online.

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): A good place to start is the beginning — how do you individually and collaboratively start developing a universe, particularly for “The Vela”? Did you meet to iron out particular elements, collaborate over Google Docs, have a master spreadsheet? (I’m particularly interested in the broad question of “why space,” the AI spiders that appear in Episode 1 and the inclusion of details from existing cultures, like the “birthday noodles” that sound delicious!)

Becky Chambers (BC): On the practical side, we lived and breathed by Google Docs. We had lore cheatsheets, problems that needed solving, lexicons of slang, outlines for both the story as a whole and for each chapter and so on. We had a Slack channel as well, and held the occasional conference call. This is the sort of project that could get messy fast, but I think we did a good job of staying organized and talking everything through.

S. L. Huang (SLH): Our chats were always a highlight of my week! This group is so, so fun to world-build with, because one person will throw out an idea and then another person will springboard off it brilliantly, or one person will ask a question or have a half-formed thought, and another person will have a great idea for an answer right away. It was so fun, and felt like it led very quickly to a delightfully rich world.

For culture, although we weren’t basing on anything specific, it was also important to us not to make U.S. cultural norms the default. The birthday noodles are a great example — in Becky’s Episode 2, she originally had a reference to birthday cake, and she flagged that as something to talk to the rest of us about, because it’s a very specific cultural assumption. We talked it over and threw out suggestions from around the world. Birthday noodles are a real cultural tradition; I’ve had my Chinese aunties cook them for me! (And yes, they are delicious.) We tried to do that [in] a bunch of different places, like ensuring that we didn’t default to long hairstyles for our female characters or didn’t default to American naming conventions (i.e., we didn’t automatically want to do a first name followed by a last name).

We also gave each other freedom to be as creatively inventive within our own episodes as we wanted. For example, the cool cave networks and gorgeous red pine forests on one of our planets are entirely Rivers’ invention, and then we revised our episodes to match. Or the AI spiders in Episode 1 — that was something I came up with, and the rest of the group was totally fine with running with it. (I had an arachnophobic roommate once. I was the Spider Knight in the household.)

Yoon Ha Lee (YHL): While we had a general framework, we did have to do a lot of world-building around the initial scenario of refugees in space and a dying sun! One thing we agreed upon from very early on was that this was not going to be hard science fiction. My husband is a gravitational astrophysicist, a fact we abused, and I remember him telling me while we were hashing this out that there doesn’t exist any known astronomical phenomenon that would kill a star in the way that we needed for our plot to happen in a human timescale. Likewise, none of us wanted to sit there calculating slingshot assists and orbital trajectories. The dying sun and the refugees with their 17-year window to get to (temporary) safety is really an allegory for climate change and political crisis in our own world. That 17-year figure was particularly important to Lydia and the rest of us, because it’s based on a real-world statistic: Seventeen years is the average amount of time a refugee spends in a camp.

The series bible called for this to be set in space to give us a broader canvas to play with.  Influences/comparisons included science fiction shows like “The Expanse” and “Battlestar Galactica.” I will personally confess that I liked the opportunity to include a big space battle.

We had a dilemma when it came to depiction of cultures and largely went for a light touch on influences from existing cultures. We didn’t want to commit to having our world have cultures that were clearly, definitely descended from, e.g., the modern-day U.S. or modern-day Belize or what have you. Instead, we used names and descriptions to hint that our characters came from some kind of multinational/multicultural colonization effort. (We may have abused random name generators.) To be frank, given all the ground we needed to cover, we didn’t have the space to include a detailed backstory of our characters’ colonial origins going back to Earth. We just decided that it was generations ago and had fallen out of living memory.

 

TSD: One of the major themes in “The Vela” concerns the devastation of war and the ensuing refugee crisis. Could you comment on these storytelling choices and if there are parallels to our world today that you would like to emphasize?

BC: What Yoon said. You don’t have to look beyond the current headlines in any country to see the parallels. The real world is experiencing this sort of identity crisis right now, this moral decision about whether we should reach outward or close ourselves off. We have characters in “The Vela” who represent both sides of that argument, as well as all the messy territory in between.

YHL: This was definitely a deliberate parallel to today’s refugee crisis and one of the axioms, if you will, behind “The Vela”‘s setup. In the story, people respond to the crisis in any number of ways: Asala, a survivor, by hardening her heart, Niko with outraged idealism, Niko’s father by exploiting the situation for his own political gain, Soraya by trying very directly to help as an aid worker, Cynwrig with xenophobia, preserving her own people at the cost of the refugees’ well-being.  Sadly, I don’t think this is all that different from the kinds of reactions we see in the real world.

SLH: And in our world, many of these issues don’t have easy solutions — even people who agree on the basic morals of a situation might have radically different ideas on what the best approach is, and what it’s okay to sacrifice for a higher good. We strove to address those real-world parallels, and to do it respectfully. But from a storytelling perspective, it also allowed for some poignant tragedy to happen between our protagonists. Even when our heroes are on the same side, they’ll take actions that appall and destroy each other, and we’ve tried to make readers feel like they can understand exactly why.

 

TSD: “The Vela” features a diverse cast of characters with a variety of backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities and more, with several in positions of power and narrative importance. If you could answer, what motivated these world-building and storytelling decisions, especially considering the (somewhat recent) wave in speculative fiction for greater inclusivity of traditionally marginalized voices? What do you foresee as the results of these particular storytelling choices, in this work, in your work and for the genre as a whole?

BC: The thing is, I don’t see how our team could’ve made any other choice here. All of us are queer. My three fellow authors are people of color. All of us are part of multiracial or immigrant families. To not have a diverse cast in this story would be for us to write ourselves (and our friends, and our families) out of this future. All we did is follow the oldest writing rule in the book: We wrote what we know. The end result of that — whether it be in this work, my work or in the genre — is nothing more complicated than honesty. If science fiction’s intent is to tell stories about the future of humanity, then we have to accurately represent what humanity looks like.

YHL: Actually, I remember when we all first met, we had this moment where we all looked at each other and mutually agreed that the original story bible was rather heteronormative — Asala was a cisgendered woman; Niko was originally a cisgendered male character named Oskar, and there were hints of a romance between Asala and Oskar. Lydia was extremely open to our rearranging things, which was great — everyone on this team is queer, so we queered things up as a reflection of our own identities!

We also did our best to reflect diversity in other ways. Asala is a trans woman and flirts with women. Niko is nonbinary. Characters aren’t all white. One planetary leader is a woman; one refugee camp leader is nonbinary and uses a wheelchair. Polyamory is common on one planet.  We agreed that there would be birthday noodles (two of us are Asian) instead of birthday cake. The world is diverse, and readers of all kinds deserve to see themselves reflected in fiction.

The genre has gotten a lot better at inclusion than when I was reading SFF that was almost always about white male characters as a kid growing up. I have a 15-year-old daughter who’s biracial (white/Asian) and I’m hoping this trend will only continue.

SLH: What they said. We all brought some deep history to the table on this one. I remember sitting around a table with my fellow authors in NYC, sharing personal and familial experiences about migration or identity, and using all of our perspectives to enrich our characters and world-building. I felt an incredible sense of safety and solidarity in writing with Yoon and Rivers and Becky — diversity and representation was so important to all of us, both ethically and on a deep personal level. And Serial Box completely backed us up — I remember being a little nervous about that, but our producer Lydia encouraged us to remake the world exactly how we chose.

 

TSD: How is writing a series of episodes different from writing a non-episodic novel or short story cycle? And how does the collaboration work, when one episode is written by a different author but the overall story maintains the same voice? Does everyone have to check and read each other’s episodes?

BC: Serial Box has a standard method of dealing with the restrictions of the episodic format.  We all got together for two and a half days in NYC for a “story summit” where we started from Lydia Shamah’s story bible and hashed out the characters, the world-building, a big-picture outline of the plot, and divided up the episodes. (I thought there might be a fight over who got what, but actually everyone wanted different eps!)

In this case, the episodes were written in three phases. SL Huang had the first episode, so she wrote that first to establish some of the basics of the setting and characters. After that, we wrote “zero drafts” of Eps. 2-5 concurrently, then reconvened over the phone to discuss continuity glitches so that we could iron those out in revisions. Wash, rinse, repeat for Eps. 6-10.

As you might imagine, it was necessary for us to have the major story beats outlined for this method of concurrent writing to be viable, because the person writing Episode 4 couldn’t wait for Episode 3 to be done in order to line up their episode. We also didn’t aim to erase each writer’s individual voice — we all have different strengths as writers, and the division of the episodes reflects that.  Becky’s amazing at insightful character moments, SL writes killer action scenes, Rivers is great at fleshing out cultural details. But this does mean that every episode has a slightly different flavor depending on who wrote it.

 

TSD: Personally, one of most resonant elements is the character Asala and her strong love for her sister Dayo, which ultimately motivates her actions and sacrifices. How did you create Asala, and how would you describe how familiar love frames the story, particularly for Asala and Dayo, and the president and his son Niko?

YHL: The basis of “The Vela” was a story bible generated by Serial Box’s Lydia Shamah.  Asala was already part of that story bible, and the bones of the character were already there — a tough mercenary who’s more interested in her own survival than the fate of her solar system. As we developed the characters, we added more details about Asala’s relationship with her sister Dayo and how they became separated, as well as Asala’s connection to President Ekrem as one of his former soldiers from their army days.  I admit that, personally, I really enjoyed putting in a strong relationship to her sister, because I have a kid sister who’s always been supportive of me. Niko’s tense relationship with their father — their idealism vs. his political cynicism — was also something based on the story bible, but which emerged in greater depth as we delved into the characters.

 

TSD: What do you hope readers of “The Vela” will remember most from the story? Do you have cool things you want to point out, or answers to questions that weren’t included here? And (no spoilers!) what was one of your favorite parts to write or read?

BC: I’m excited for readers to dive into this entire world that we’ve built. I’m biased, but I think we’ve created a lot of hearty cultural and political bits to chew on. In particular, Rivers’ descriptions of life on Hypatia tugged at my heartstrings hard. They made me feel cold and afraid and awed and curious and tough and hungry all at once.

YHL: There’s a certain confrontation in Episode 5 that I had a ton of fun writing.  It was inspired by the time I visited a provincial museum near where my mom lives in South Korea, and I got to see examples of brush calligraphy on silk that were hundreds of years old. And this wasn’t a big, major museum; my mom lives in the boonies! I was struck by how beautifully preserved those scrolls were for being so old.

Beyond that, I’m always here for the big space battles. And I am dying for folks to learn what a mobuck is. (That was Becky.)

SLH: I’m such a huge fan of so many small moments in my co-authors’ episodes — every time, it was truly a joy to read them. I could keep naming bits I loved reading and not stop! But if I have to pick one, it’s going to be the climax in Episodes 9 and 10 — I was screaming at the page even though I knew what was coming, and I thought Yoon and Becky did such a thrilling job in pulling off the payoff we were all building up to.

My favorite part to write probably has too many spoilers, so I’ll talk about a different one. I hesitate to say I “enjoyed” doing this, because what I learned was so painful, but working on Episode 4 definitely made me grow as a writer and as a person. It’s the first episode that takes place in our orbital refugee camp, and I knew I was taking on the mantle of defining what our refugees’ lives were like and what life in the camp was, in as serious and sensitive a dialogue as possible with the real-world parallels. I watched countless documentaries and read a ton of articles on refugee camps and refugee experiences, including many first-person accounts. The vast majority of what you’ll see in Episode 4 is based on the real world in some way, only refracted through a science fictional lens. I can only hope I’ve done it justice.

This interview with authors Chambers, Huang and Lee of “The Vela” will be continued in tomorrow’s paper. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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