NASA is full of scientists who got into science and space because of Star Trek and other science fiction stories. So it makes sense that someone would use science fiction to entice other people to embrace science and technology. And that someone — er, someones — are Ann VanderMeer and Eric Desatnik, the editor and anthology creator, respectfully, of the science fiction anthology Avatars Inc., a free collection of stories about robotic avatars and the “memories” they have stored in their, uh, memories. Available on the website, avatars.inc, the collection includes new stories by such cool writers (sci-fi and otherwise) as JY Yang, Kelly Robson, Ken Liu, Tade Thompson, Madeline Ashby, and the duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (a.k.a. James S.A. Corey). In the following email interview, Ann and Eric discuss both the idea behind this collection and the stories included in it.
Ann VanderMeer, Eric Desatnik
To start, what is Avatars Inc.? I know it’s a collection of sci-fi short stories, but can you please explain the theme and the framing device that sets it all up?
Eric: XPRIZE and All Nippon Airways (ANA) have a $10 million competition going on right now in which 77 teams from around the world are developing robotic avatar technology that could transport human presence to a remote location in real time. We created Avatars Inc as a way to help the public understand, and be inspired by, the possible impact of having these avatars in the world. We worked closely with the 24 contributing writers to ensure a diversity of use-cases presented in their stories, and that they were a blend of relatable / accessible avatar use-cases and some that are more far-fetched and futuristic. Beyond that, their creativity was unshackled, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the resulting stories.
Given that these “memories” are coming from multiple Avatar units, did you decide ahead of time that the ‘bots would all behave the same way or did you decide that they’d all behave differently but have some of the same qualities given that they’re different versions of the same ‘bot, and why did you do whatever you did?
Eric: We knew that we wanted the avatars to be “human-like,” being that avatar technology is meant to be an extension of human presence. That said, we didn’t want to overly constrict the writers from bringing creative approaches to the table, so you’ll notice a few deviations from this.
Furthermore, being that the stories span five decades, we wanted to acknowledge the continued technological advancement that will most certainly occur over that time frame, so an astute reader will notice that the capabilities of the avatars will increase as you move through the stories chronologically. We originally thought the prompt should be about a single avatar unit with a “lifetime” of memories presented, but as the stories started to come in, we realized that prompt didn’t necessarily work. So, instead, we tweaked the prompt to be about Avatars Inc. creating and maintaining an archive of avatar memories from multiple memory chips they’ve retrieved over the years, with the Mars mission presented in the intro video representing the 24th such mission, and the call-to-action for the public to submit the remaining story being the 25th and final memory that will comprise the complete Archives.
So did any of your contributors ever suggest a personality trait for the Avatar that you didn’t feel worked for Avatars Inc., but it was still a good idea so you suggested they write the story and use it for something else?
Eric: A key thing that we wanted to make clear is that an avatar is an extension of a human operator, as opposed to a sentient being, which not only accurately reflects what that teams in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE are creating, but also led to stories that were deeply “human.” Ann and I worked closely with all 24 writers before they put pen to paper to ensure they were heading down the right path with their ideas, and to make sure there wasn’t too much overlap between writers. Ann is obviously a pro at keeping in mind how the stories “play” with each other and how the overall collection will take shape.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the stories in Avatars Inc. are science fiction. But what subgenres of sci-fi are represented in this collection? Like, are there comedic stories, sci-fi horror stories…
Ann: That’s one of the great things about working on an anthology like this. At first glance it may seem like the theme is very narrow and specific. However, each writer approaches the subject matter quite differently. So, yes, we do have stories that are darkly comedic, such as Tade Thompson’s “Thirty-Three” and Nino Cipri’s “At The End Of A Most Perfect Day.” Then we also have more horrific stories from Jeffrey Ford (“The Ulgrieb Case”) and Julianna Baggott (“Banding”).
Speaking of your contributors, how did you decide which writers you’d approach?
Ann: Eric had already approached some writers he knew and had relationships with. Some are on the advisory board, so they already knew about the work of the XPRIZE Foundation. So he had some commitments before I came on board. Together we worked on a list of additional writers we wanted to include. It’s important to me, as well as Eric, that we make this anthology as inclusive as possible. In my experience, it makes for a much better book. And considering that the teams competing for the ANA Avatar Prize are international, it only makes sense for the anthology to reflect that as well.
I was introduced to some writers who I had never worked with before. And I’d certainly love to see more of their work, should they wish to send any my way — short fiction or novellas. And there was one writer who wasn’t able to finish their story in time and they had to drop out because of other commitments and deadlines. This broke my heart because I know that the finished story would have been a killer. It broke their heart, too, so I am hopeful we can work together sometime in the future.
Were there any where you thought, “There’s no way they’ll say ‘yes,'” only to have them say it after all?
Oh…you want to know who and who and who? That’s a secret….
And Ann, what did you end up saying more to your husband: “Please contribute something to this collection” or “No, you cannot contribute to this collection, Jeff, you still haven’t taken out the garbage”? [Her husband is writer Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, Borne, and other books.]
Ann: LOL! No…I didn’t approach Jeff at all. He’s got so much on his plate right now with book deadlines, etc., His new novel, Dead Astronauts, came out right around the deadline for this anthology, so he was touring. Plus he had other previous commitments as well, in addition to garbage duty! Not to mention bird watching.
Aside from having to fit the set-up and theme, were there any other parameters for the stories in Avatars Inc.? Like, did the stories have to be new, above or below a certain length…?
Ann: All original stories, of course. We asked that the stories be between 3000-4000 words in length, although some were much longer. As to other constraints, we didn’t want to see any stories using the avatars for nefarious activities, preferring more positive approaches. Other than that, it was open to their imagination.
Now, one of the interesting things about Avatar Inc. is that it’s free, and available as both an ebook and on the website avatars.inc. Why did you decide to make it a freebie?
Ann: XPRIZE is a non-profit, and the purpose behind this project was to expand the conversation of possible uses and ideas for avatars. And how better to distribute this far and wide than to make it available to all.
Has there been any talk of doing a print edition? Y’know, for old people like me who prefer paper books? And CDs. And watching TV shows on a TV…
Ann: Who doesn’t like the smell of a great book? I know I do.
Eric: I’m very much a book person (you should see my bookshelf at home!) but we focused on offering this collection digitally to not only reach as many people as possible, but to avoid the environmental footprint of printing and shipping physical books. Also, as a non-profit, we didn’t want to get into the business of bookselling. But that all said, never say never.
Finally, Ann, Avatars Inc. is not the first anthology you’ve edited. You and your husband have co-edited such short story collections as 2016’s The Big Book Of Science Fiction, 2015’s Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and 2013’s The Weird. If someone enjoys Avatars Inc., which of your previous collections which would you suggest people read next and why that one?
Ann: If they enjoyed Avatars Inc. I would suggest The Big Book Of Science Fiction next because this one shares the most attributes with Avatars Inc. It also has stories from all over the world, including some translated into the English for the first time. This is characteristic of all of our projects. And I’ve carried over this approach with Avatars Inc.
Of course, I encourage everyone to read all of them [laughs]. The latest one, The Big Book Of Modern Fantasy is coming out this July. And I’d love to work on another XPRIZE anthology with Eric.