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Charlie Jane Anders: The State of S.F. in S.F. 

Wednesday, Jan 27 2016
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If you're searching for a representative of the state of science fiction in America, you don't need to look much further than Charlie Jane Anders. She's the editor-in-chief at io9.com, the Gawker site devoted to all things sci and sci-fi, and the founder and emcee of Writers with Drinks, the monthly literary variety show at the Make Out Room that brings together scribblers of all stripes, from Amy Tan to Bucky Sinister to Jonathan Lethem. An award-winning short story writer, Anders saw the publication of her first science-fiction novel, All the Birds in the Sky, on Jan. 26. The child of two East Coast college professors, Anders says she felt a sense of literary community when she first moved to San Francisco in 1999.

"I've lived in places where there were famous writers, but I never saw them," she says. "I was around a lot of literary stuff, but there wasn't a community in the same way."

Anders founded Writers With Drinks in 2001, and it has evolved into a program where a sober-minded presentation by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig might precede an explicit piece about gay S&M by poet Jack Fritscher. The evenings are most notable for Anders' legendary introductions, which tend to veer into surrealistic whimsy.

"There's still a lot of improv in it," Anders says of her emceeing style. "But I spend a little more time on them in advance because: A, I don't want to accidentally insult somebody; and B, I want to give a sense of why this person is excellent and why I wanted to have them in the event."

These days, Writers with Drinks is as lively as ever, but Anders has noticed changes to the scene.

"You do have to address the elephant in the room: the fact that so many of our best artists have been displaced by gentrification and so many others are just barely hanging in there," she says. "That obviously has a huge impact on the scene. But I'm still amazed at how many great writers there are coming along who are brand new to the Bay Area."

Anders' first love is science fiction, and she says that her identification as a transgender woman gives her insight into her genre of choice.

"I think that, in general, anyone who writes science fiction and fantasy is going to be interested in stories about outsiders of various sorts," she says. "There has been this great trend in science fiction and fantasy where various types of outsiders have been put in more central roles in the genre, which I think is important, because part of what science fiction is about is discovery, discovering things that are new and different. Often, the people who make the most interesting discoveries are not sitting most comfortably in the mainstream."

Now, Anders is busy promoting All the Birds in the Sky. She says that the "cool idea" that inspired the book was, "What if a witch met a mad scientist? How would they interact?"

The plot evolved into more of a relationship story between two protagonists who have wildly different viewpoints. Patricia Delfine is a witch. Budding scientific genius Laurence Armstead is interested in artificial intelligence, rocket ships, and time travel. Bullied by schoolmates and misunderstood by their parents and teachers, Patricia and Laurence protect each other as children, only to separate and come back together as adults in a San Francisco on the brink of cataclysm. Alternately madcap and soulful, All the Birds in the Sky slyly celebrates some beloved tropes of science fiction and fantasy, from wormholes and robots, to magical boarding schools and talking animals.

"When I was writing it, I had this constant panic of, 'People are going to hate this,'" Anders says, "because it's so weird and it's trying to do a lot of different things. It's definitely the most ambitious thing I've ever written, in a lot of ways."

All the Birds in the Sky displays an unmistakably apocalyptic streak, with Patricia and Laurence on opposite sides of how to deal with the impending disaster. Anders acknowledges that the end of the world is on a lot of folks' minds.

"People are just really scared about the environment falling apart, and about climate change, and our unsustainable system finally giving out," she says. "I think those are realistic fears. Hopefully, we're a resourceful species and will find a way to deal with these issues without being consumed [by them]."

She adds, "I think part of the job of science fiction is to grapple with things like climate change and the unsustainability of our economic system, and show we can solve those problems through ingenuity."

Whatever else happens in the future, Anders sees closer ties between literary writers and those who craft speculative fiction.

"I think for the past 10 years, there's been a very strong sense among literary writers that speculative fiction ideas are where the action is, where a lot of the most interesting stories are," she says. "You now have more people whose baseline expectation is that science fiction will have a certain amount of literary aspiration."

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