Is religious science fiction a thing? It seems like it should be a thing. I’m making it a thing, and I’m going to start with Ada Hoffmann’s new space opera, The Outside (paperback, Kindle), which isn’t religious in that it pushes one religion or another, but is instead a story in which religion and religious elements play a large part. But it’s not — as she discusses in the following email interview — the only unique aspect of this intriguing novel.
I always like to start with an overview of the plot. So, what is The Outside about?
Yasira Shien is a young autistic scientist working in a galaxy ruled by A.I. Gods. Something goes horribly wrong with the new reactor she’s building, and she’s kidnapped by angels: the Gods’ ruthless cyborg servants. But they’re not here to punish her. Instead, they want her to help hunt down the missing mentor who helped her design the reactor, and who might just be a heretic putting reality itself at risk.
Where did you get the original idea for The Outside, and how, if at all, did the plot change as you wrote it?
People have been talking about The Outside as big-idea SF, but actually my original inspiration was that I had a crush my friend’s D&D character. I wanted to keep writing about him, even after the campaign was over, but I knew D&D fiction is a hard sell. So I decided to file off the serial numbers so hard that he’d end up in space. That character became the main angel character, Akavi Averis, and, to a large extent, I built the world around the question of how someone like him could exist in science fiction. It took me longer to come up with an actual protagonist.
Once I had an outline of the plot, I kinda sorta of stuck with it-ish, but books always surprise me at some point. There’s a lot in the outline that didn’t make it into the book for pacing reasons, including a part where Yasira hangs out with cultists on Old Earth. I hope we’ll get to visit Old Earth in another book, because some of what goes on there is pretty interesting.
The Outside sounds weird. But good weird. Though it also sounds like a sci-fi space opera. Is that how you see it?
I definitely see it as a space opera. There are some cosmic horror elements, in terms of the particular heresies and their effects, but it’s more a space opera that plays around with those elements, as opposed to straight-up horror.
Some people have described The Outside as hard SF, and I’m slightly perplexed by that, since this book has always felt very fanciful to me. But I’ve decided to take it as a compliment — it means that the way I wrote the fake science and tech felt real.
In your bio, it mentions that you also write poetry as well as prose. How has writing poetry — and, I assume, reading it — influenced what you wrote in The Outside?
Honestly, there’s not that much direct influence. I don’t think there’s any actual poetry in the book. I think there’s an epigraph somewhere with two measly lines from a song, and that’s it. Poetry has been a valuable tool for developing my writing in general, though — it’s great for making you think about individual words, images, and sounds.
Are there are any other writers who had a big influence on The Outside, but not on anything else you’ve written?
The Outside wouldn’t be able to do what it does if it weren’t for all the writers who have gone before me writing modern, socially aware Lovecraftian subversions — especially Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who I worked with very early in my short-story career. H.P. Lovecraft was a huge influence on horror and fantasy fiction, but also a huge racist, so a lot of subversions of his work deal specifically with race. The Outside has a racially diverse cast, but its subversive elements — not to spoil anything — have more to do with disability and spirituality.
How about movies, TV shows, or other non-literary things; did any of them have a big influence on either what you wrote in The Outside or how you wrote it?
Well, I already told you about the D&D game.
Right, right. Now, your bio says you are trying to teach computers how to write poetry, and have a polite black cat. Did you ever consider making The Outside about a poetry-writing robot who becomes sentient and tries to destroy humanity but is stymied when a cat asks very nicely if they wouldn’t please reconsider?
I did consider this, but my cat asked me not to. Nobody can resist that cat. (You can get cat pictures on my Patreon, by the way. She’s a beaut.)
On a more serious note, your bio also says that you have Asperger syndrome, and are, “passionate about autistic self-advocacy.” You touched on this earlier, but how does that play into the story you’re telling in The Outside?
I’ve done a lot of reading and writing about autistic characters in speculative fiction and how they’re presented. My protagonist, Yasira, is autistic, and so is the former mentor she’s hunting. There’s also a non-speaking, AAC (alternative communication)-using character who has a really fun secondary role. There are parts of this story that I simply couldn’t have told without the autistic elements. The Outside grapples a lot with what it means to see the world differently than others and who gets to decide what view is real. I hope that autistic readers will find something that resonates in my work and that seeing complex autistic characters in major roles will be helpful for them.
One of my best friends is the mother of an autistic child. What do you think she might get out of reading The Outside?
I think the best thing we can do for autistic people’s parents is to help them believe in their children at any level of ability. I hope having strong autistic characters in The Outside, including a non-speaking character, might help with that. Certainly the book ends up espousing the position that everyone has value and everyone’s life is worth living, even in very dire circumstances.
And what do you think people unfamiliar or ill-informed about autism might get out of it?
I think it’s good for people to get a broader view of what autistic people are like, and of the diversity that’s possible on the autism spectrum, beyond just Sheldon Cooper, you know? Books like The Outside can be one way to do that. Yasira struggles with overload, sensory issues, and social isolation; her autism affects her in realistic ways, but she’s a strong and complex character and not just a stereotype, and the same goes for the other disabled characters. We need so many more characters like this.
Now, some sci-fi space operas are self-contained stories, while others are parts of larger sagas. What is The Outside?
I’m thinking of this as the first book in a trilogy, but that will depend on whether the publisher greenlights the next two books or not. Last I heard, they are still waiting to see how sales go. The Outside stands on its own with a self-contained plot and a strong resolution, but at the end you can see what the major characters have committed themselves to and where they might go next. I love the world the book takes place in, and I think there’s a lot more to explore.
Earlier I asked if The Outside had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, etc. Has there been any interest in making a movie, show or game out of The Outside?
I haven’t seen any of that yet, but I can dream!
Do you have a preference?
It would be lovely to one day see The Outside as a movie or TV show. Some parts would be challenging to film but it would be such an opportunity for wildly trippy special effects and I love that stuff.
And if that happened, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
I’m no good at fancasting. I feel like, to properly pick actors for roles, you need a really wide and deep familiarity with what’s out there, and I don’t have that. [But] I’d love to see newcomers and obscurer actors getting a chance to shine. And, of course, there are shapeshifting characters like Akavi who would need to be played by a team of several people.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Outside, what space opera of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
For ruthless hierarchies, brilliantly tricky antagonists, and heaps of weird shit happening in space, I would highly recommend Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries Of Empire series [Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, Revenant Gun, and Hexarchate Stories], which is by a non-neurotypical author, as well! If you want some space opera of a more specifically cosmic horror bent, I’ve heard really good things about Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s work.