Author Interview with editor Heather E. Saunders of Just the Write Type Editing

Rowen Sivertsen discusses Songs of the Zhongzi, how teaching inspired her writing and the rewards of creating a multimedia project.

Rowen Sivertsen What came first, the creature or the story?

The creature: I was teaching a class of 12 year-olds about energy interchanges, and we had covered animals (chemical to kinetic) and plants (light to chemical) and I gave them an assignment to invent a new creature that lived off a different energy interchange. They came up with some fabulous ideas (I've been trying to trace one of the girls, because I would love to have used her idea in a book!). Then they said: "Your turn now, Miss!" My creature converts kinetic to chemical, but I thought I'd give them more to think about than just energy interchanges. Short stories about Zennith, usually with a philosophical twist, became a reward for the class when they had cleared up their lab equipment and written up their reports 5 minutes before the bell.

The Zhongzi are labelled the perfect creation: their creator "designed them so that they can't develop the flaws imposed on humans by the process of competitive evolution." Once they are able to modify themselves and extend their life, are they no longer perfect?

Good question! I don't think that the Zhongzi were ever perfect in the first place. It was the best Jules Mitterand (and I!) could do, and it turned out that it wasn't good enough. Of course, it depends how one defines perfect, and I'm having some very interesting discussions with my 16-year-old Muslim foster son on this one right now!

Which Zhongzi clone is your personal favorite? (I personally like Frolic.)

I like Zennith and his offspring, but then he was with me for many years before the book developed. And my next favourite is Saga: the golden poets that are at their very best when on the edge of an abyss of fear. I felt so intensely with them when writing about them, and I hope that I managed to the capture the feeling in the song "Child of the Sun".

How did your experience in the Humanist Society affect your writing?

Of course my humanist perspective infuses everything I think and do. But I fear I am a heretical humanist. Humanists put people at the centre of their philosophy, while I put life in all its splendour and diversity at the centre of mine.

The real catalyst for the slightly misogynist view of religion expressed in this book was my work with the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief. I had the privilege of working with people from many shades of the global religions. Many of them were wonderful people, extraordinary examples of courage and love, but some of them had a philosophy of life that was really quite destructive. I have absolutely no patience with the "God has given man dominion over life" perspective. If it's true, then She really messed up!

Of philosophies arising from religions, I am attracted to the ancient nomadic Kyrgyz shamanism, which had humans placed bang in the middle of a spectrum of life from the smallest bacteria to a plethora of gods which, unlike the far-too-human Roman, Greek and Nordic Gods, were responsible for one thing each: rivers or trees or clouds etc. Humans were seen as the messengers, the go-betweens, and their greatest responsibility was to maintain the status quo. A patina of Islam was laid over this through the tides of history, but the basic tenet of humility in relation to man's role remained until first the soviet revolution and then the modern wave of Wahibism washed over Central Asia. (End of lecture!)

Of course, this "humble role of man" resonates badly with man actually becoming the creator of life-forms himself, as in this novel. But I also have the perspective that as, arguably, the most sentient beings on this planet, we have a responsibility to preserve life in any way we can, even if it means seeding it onto other barren planets.

This novel functions both as a discussion of community and industrialization. Did you have a primary subject in mind when you wrote it?

No: it was a mind experiment. The basic question I wanted to answer is: Does intelligent life inevitably have to bear the seed of its own destruction - even if it has avoided the brutalizing process of evolution? So I seeded the Zhongzi on Shianshenka to see what would happen. I have to admit, I lost control. Once they were there, they took over and wrote the story themselves, which I suppose in itself was a kind of evolution! If there was any background message, it was about thoroughly understanding the complexity and interdependence of ecological systems before one starts messing with them. This was not consciously communicated on my part, but so visceral that I couldn't avoid it!

All creatures that populate Shianshenka are varying and diverse. How did your work as a biochemist affect their creation?

I wanted at least the creatures and the planet to be plausible from a scientific point of view. It's the biochemist in me speaking in Appendix 2, which describes how life on Shianshenka evolves. I often feel frustrated when I read Sci Fi novels that suddenly bring in elements of magic, although I am thoroughly aware that all modern technology would appear to be magic to people only a couple of centuries ago. There is a gradual transition between scientific plausibility and magic, and finding the balance is very difficult. I admit that I deliberately dodged the problem of explaining space travel!

Rowen Sivertsen Do you feel all scientists/artists responsible for their creations in the same way Jules Mitterand is for the Zhongzi?

Yes, I believe that ultimately, scientists, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs are responsible for their products or creations, even though they may lose or give away control at some point during its development. They are, after all, responsible for its very existence. If we don't accept this, we get the nuclear bomb situation: "OK, I invented it, but somebody else dropped it on someone!" Or the Norwegian oil situation: "We only pump it up, we don't burn it! It isn't us destroying the climate!"

That is not to say that we shouldn't take risks. As I said, Jules and I failed in making the perfect creation, but should that prevent us from trying? At the start of such a venture one cannot know whether net pleasure or advantage will outweigh net suffering or destruction. After all, although little Zennith carried a bitter message to the skies, there were generations of happy Zhongzi, revelling in the beauty of their planet, before the collapse came for the society on the main island- and some escaped the collapse to other islands, which gives me the possibility of writing more.

I'm in another interesting situation touched by the same moral question: I have just finished creating a new website for the Interstellar Panspermia Society. Their aim is to seed young barren solar systems with primitive terrestrial microbes, in order to ensure the propagation of protein-based life beyond this solar system. All kinds of fascinating moral questions arise from this ambition, which have to be resolved before any action is taken.

Sewing the universe with life may have totally unforeseen consequences for which we will be responsible long after mankind has disappeared. But the alternative is the probability that the formula for life as developed on this planet will die with the planet, and that may be the worst scenario of all.

At what point is the creator freed from the responsibility of their creations?

If you meant "hands on responsibility" as in remaining the good shepherd for one's creation, I guess it's like parenting. At the point at which one's offspring are capable of existing on their own, one simply has to let go. At the end, the Zhongzi blame Jules Mitterand for letting go too early, but I don't necessarily agree with them!

There is an underlying issue of religion throughout the work. It strongly influences some of the main characters and weighs heavily in ending. Do you feel the creation of religion lead to the downfall of the Zhongzi?

No, I think ambition - even though it was selfless ambition - together with a driving urge for change, which was then implemented without the necessary holistic knowledge, led to their downfall. Which takes me back to the original question: perhaps inevitably all intelligent life will want to innovate and create change and will never be able to say "Stop! This is optimal, let's freeze it here". The Zhongzi tried that at The Dancer, and got incredibly bored!

This is a multimedia experience, how do you think that adds to the reader's impression of Shianshenka and the Zhongzi?

The songs are central to the world of the Zhongzi and their way of communicating, and as such they are an important part of the whole. I do think that readers using the electronic version get a more holistic view of the world of Shianshenka and the culture of the Zhongzi.

But I'm sure that this will vary from reader to reader. For some they will augment the experience. For others they will be an irritating distraction that diverges from the picture they have made for themselves, which is why, in any electronic versions, I will probably just put in links to illustrations and song videos so that readers can choose whether to follow them or not. But my hope is that the videos add to the slightly weird, other-worldly feeling. My son described them as "very pretty, very weird, in other words: pretty weird". They certainly won't be everybody's cup of tea. Also, they are experimental: I was working alone in Garage Band, Logic, Photoshop and Fantomorph on my computer. I am not a performer and mine was the only voice I could afford to use! The result is less professional, but more personal and immediate, which I believe is right for the project. I hope to communicate the sense of wonder that I myself feel about the planet.

I created the illustrations (often using microscope and electron microscope images) because I needed them for the videos, but they took on their own life, and have become popular at local galleries.

What do you hope readers take away from this novel?

I had three very different ambitions.

First: I want people to fall in love with the Zhongzi! I would like to change the habitual picture that comes up when the word "aliens" is mentioned. Two films have already done much to promote a different attitude to alien life: ET and Avatar. But both had humanoid protagonists, with two eyes, two arms, two legs, that had to eat and breathe. I was curious as to whether it would be possible to emotionally engage readers in creatures that looked and functioned in a totally different manner. Added to this challenge was that I am also asking my readers to engage in social clusters rather than individuals. My first hurdle were artists that told me that it was impossible to give expression and emotions to a creature that didn't have eyes and mouths, and would be difficult for the reader to engage. In fact, I have used the many species of ceropagia flowers to create the zhongzi. Fortunately, feedback from people who have seen the "feeler" version so far has shown that most people have no problem engaging in the Zhongzi, and seem to do so fondly. Some are "there" straight away. Some take a little time but are drawn in by the story. I loved one reviewer's description of them as "tiny furry balls with enormous ideas". I interpreted that as a demonstration of affection.

My second hope is that the book will stay with the reader long after he or she has shut it because it has raised some question that is relevant for him or her. When I ran humanist confirmation classes, I told my students: "If at the end of this course you are asking the right questions, then my aim has been achieved." So with the book. It is interesting to note that many of my friends and colleagues that have read the manuscript so far have responded in terms of rhetorical questions. And the range of questions that have caused them to stop up and think is even wider than I had foreseen. Very gratifying!

My third hope is that the reader, in meeting the music, illustrations and book together will get a sense of the wonder and beauty that the alien can give us: the same emotion that we experience when we see beautiful electron microscope pictures of the tiniest inhabitants of our Earth.

What is one fun random fact about you?

That I misspent my youth renovating old British Rail steam engines on the Watercress Line. And, yes, I can drive a steam engine, and it requires even more finger-tip delicacy than playing the guitar!