Exclusive Interview: “Another Life” Author Sarena Ulibarri
For some people, ancestry DNA tests have been great, a way to connect with your past, or find lost relatives. But for some, they’ve brought up terrible things from their past. And no, I don’t mean when a racist finds out their ancestors were black; that’s hilarious. Which brings us to Sarena Ulibarri’s sci-fi cli-fi novella Another Life (paperback, Kindle), in which a DNA test reveals that the main character doesn’t just have a skeleton in her closet, she is the skeleton. I’ll let Ulibarri explain in the following email interview.
Photo Credit: Halo Stone Photography
To start, what is Another Life about, and when and where is it set?
Another Life is a science fiction novella set in a peaceful ecovillage called Otra Vida, on the shore of a constructed lake in Death Valley. When a scientific method of uncovering past lives emerges, the founder of Otra Vida — a woman named Galacia — learns she’s the reincarnation of the previous generation’s greatest villain, this shakes the foundations of Galacia’s identity and her position within the community, threatening to undermine the good she’s done in this lifetime.
Where did you get the idea for Another Life?
The seed was those ancestry DNA tests. I thought, what if something like that could tell you who you were in a previous life? And what if you found out your previous incarnation had done some really bad things?
The water for that seed was a proposal to deal with rising sea levels by redirecting water into below sea level deserts like the Qattara Depression in Egypt and Death Valley, California. These combined into the story of a woman who helps save California from perpetual drought by creating a desalinated water line that runs from L.A. to Las Vegas. After the project is successful and people have followed her into Death Valley to build a quasi-utopian city next to one of the reservoirs, she learns she’s the reincarnation of an infamous (fictional) man named Thomas Ramsey, who scammed people by promising them passage off of a climate-ravaged Earth to Planet B — which, of course, didn’t exist.
As you said, when Galacia learns she’s Ramsey reincarnated, it shakes her sense of self, and since it could also threaten her position, she keeps it secret. But you could’ve just as easily had her be relatively okay with who she used to be — “I’m not him, I’m my own person” — but have it screw up her professional life, or have it just screw up her life, not her career. Why did you decide to have it screw her up personally as well as professionally?
Ultimately, this story grapples with the question “How do we move toward a better future when everything we know is built on the horrors of the past?” If we ignore the violence and privileges that shaped our society, the systems that support that society are bound to replicate the same oppressions. I needed a character who’s troubled by the things done by their past incarnation in order to explore that issue with any depth.
Also, in Otra Vida, there is no separation between personal and professional life. Otra Vida is a place of abundance, almost post-scarcity, where residents need only contribute to the community to earn their place there. Galacia is the Mediator, responsible for managing conflicts, but it’s not a job where she sells her skills for wages. It’s her identity and her contribution to the community. Someone who can’t separate what she does from who she is would likely have a harder time distancing herself from the things her previous self did.
As you said, Another Life is a sci-fi story. But are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
Another Life is science fiction because the conflict centers around a scientific discovery: a blood test that reveals who a person was in their past life.
However, Another Life is also climate fiction, a genre in which the conflict and worldbuilding centers around climate change. Much of the backstory for both Thomas Ramsey and Galacia revolves around the pressures of a changing climate, and the worldbuilding of Otra Vida is impacted by adaptations to a warmer world.
Climate fiction is often disaster-focused or dystopian, predicting worst-case scenarios. Solarpunk is a subgenre of climate fiction that envisions a better-case scenario. What does the world look like if we take positive action and come into better balance with the environment? Otra Vida is an exploration of what it might be like to live in a solarpunk community. A tech fix alone will never be enough to fix the systemic inequalities of our imbalanced world, so solarpunk also tends to incorporate socio-economic changes. The title “Another Life” isn’t only a reference to reincarnation, but also to alternative ways of living.
Another Life is your first novella, but you’ve written numerous short stories that have been published in such journals as Lightspeed and DreamForge. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Another Life but not on anything else you’ve written?
Once I decided I was writing about reincarnation, I sought out other science fiction stories that tackled that topic. One I particularly enjoyed was Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore, which takes a non-linear approach: the character is born in the 20th century, then in medieval times, then in the far future, etc. Another was The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud by Max Ehrlich, in which a man plagued by nightmares seeks out the town he keeps dreaming about, and gets tangled up with his family from his previous life. Both of these stories helped me puzzle through the question of how much of a personality survives between lifetimes, and how the same patterns can play out across lifetimes.
How about non-literary influences; was Another Life influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
After reading an early draft, a critique partner pointed me to a Netflix movie called The Discovery, in which a scientist discovers proof of the afterlife, leading to a societal collapse and an epidemic of suicides. Obviously, that was a much darker route than I wanted to take my story, but I certainly reconsidered some of the implications of my premise after watching it.
I also watched a ton of YouTube videos about past life regressions. One series called “Who Was I?” was my favorite, because the hypnotherapist asked specific details like names and locations and then attempted to corroborate with historical records. Maybe it’s all scripted, but I wanted to believe. Some of these videos, though, convinced me that in regression therapy the mind constructs “memories” that metaphorically represent something the person is dealing with in this lifetime. I tried to build some of that uncertainty into the regression scenes in my book: Is Galacia seeing the truth of what happened, or is her mind constructing a rationalization for her cognitive dissonance? And does that matter?
Along with writing your own stories, you’ve also edited such anthologies as Glass And Gardens: Solarpunk Summers and Glass And Gardens: Solarpunk Winters. How do you think assembling these anthologies, and working with the contributing writers, may have influenced how you wrote Another Life?
I encountered many stories in the slush pile that I dubbed “Tour Of A Utopian City,” where a stranger comes to town and a guide explains how they live. I have a scene like that in Another Life, because it’s a useful narrative tool to show the setting and deliver some exposition. But I was hyperaware of the cliché of that scene because I’d read so many like it in slush. Often, I rejected those stories because the tour lacked the tension needed for a satisfying story. One way I tried to address this in mine was to overlap the tour scene with Galacia receiving her reincarnation results. She’s distracted and trying to hurry the tour up because she’s anxious to find out her result — and that distraction comes back to haunt her later in the book.
Reading slush is really one of the best things a writer can do for their own craft. When you’re tasked with reading hundreds of submissions and picking out the best ones, you learn so much about what works and doesn’t work. Taking those insights back to your own writing, it’s easier to see what you need to do to make your story better.
Speaking of anthologies, you recently had a story called “Seashells And Soda Cans” published in Bioluminescent: A Lunarpunk Anthology. I recently interviewed Bioluminescent‘s editor, Justine Norton-Kertson, but for people who hate clicking links, what is Bioluminescent about, what is “Seashells And Soda Cans” about, and when and where is it set?
Bioluminescent is the first anthology of lunarpunk. Both solarpunk and lunarpunk are optimistic climate fiction, but lunarpunk incorporates more spirituality, plus a colorful, glowy nighttime aesthetic.
“Seashells And Soda Cans” is about siblings in a near future Hawai’i who trek through the ruins of an old tourist resort in search of a witch who can tell the future. It’s a very personal story for me; my grandparents lived in Kailua-Kona and I mined the memories of my numerous visits to bring authentic details into this story.
Going back to Another Life, sci-fi novellas can be stand-alone stories or part of larger sagas. What is Another Life?
It is a stand-alone. There’s plenty of potential to explore what happens in the larger world when “proof of reincarnation” becomes mainstream knowledge, but I’m not the kind of writer who can tackle a large-scale story like that. Though I hint at the possibilities of how it will affect religion and politics, I’m not the right person to write a story about Popes and Presidents.
Earlier I asked if Another Life had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, like the kids don’t say anymore, do you think Another Life could work as a movie, show, or game?
Maybe? A lot of the conflict is internal, so it would be challenging to translate some of that tension into a form that would be clear to a visual audience. Possibly a game.
What kind of game?
I could see something like Secret Hitler, which is a board game where players draw identity cards to determine if they are a fascist or a liberal (only within the game, of course). Maybe players draw a past life card, and the information on that card affects how they’re able to navigate a team objective. Players could force each other to reveal their past lives to give themselves an advantage, or maybe you collect additional past life cards throughout the game for more points or abilities. I dunno, I’m not ready to launch a Kickstarter for this idea just yet [laughs].
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Another Life?
Small press books rely on reviews and word-of-mouth, so if you do give it a read, please leave an honest review on Amazon and Goodreads, or tell others about it on whatever social media you use.
Finally, if someone enjoys Another Life, what similar kind of sci-fi novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
For more optimistic futures and solarpunk aesthetic check out A Psalm For The Wild-Built and A Prayer For The Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers, as well as When We Hold Each Other Up by Phoebe Wagner. All of these are wonderful, heartwarming short reads that ask important questions about how we find ways to live in better balance with the planet and with each other.