An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien


1. Tell me about this new anthology you’re editing, Aliens: Recent Encounters. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that they will take different approaches to the alien encounter. Did you feel a need to distance yourself from the kind of images the word Alien would immediately conjure (the film franchise and anal probes vs ET), or were you drawn to works that manipulated these tropes?

It’s an anthology reprinting over 30 stories published since 2000, with, as you say, a range of approaches to the theme of alien life.  Having that variety was really important to me: I wanted all the  stories to be different, not only from each other (it makes for a far more enjoyable anthology if that’s the case!) but from the types of stories more typically told about aliens.  There are no anal probes here!  The anthology starts off with a story about people struggling to survive an alien invasion of Earth, but with a focus on language and narrative loss, and goes in many directions from there.  Other stories deal with wonder, war, immigration, interstellar travel, dogs, long-distance communications and personal encounters.  Other stories are told from the aliens’ own perspectives.

2. Why do you think that the figure of the alien continues to fascinate us? How is it evolving do you think?

I suspect the answer to this differs from person to person, but there seem to be some widespread reasons.  One is wanting to know whether alien life exists and what they’ll be like.  I get pretty excited at the thought of extremophiles in deep caves on Mars or under the ice fountains of Enceladus.  The thought that we might age wine in the stomachs of horse-like animals with the permission of the planet’s sentient life, or encounter copper, hourglass-shaped aliens thinking-writing with condensed steam inside their bodies, or develop complex, personal relationships with life on another world — these possibilities are why I love fiction.  I won’t get to experience this in my lifetime, but I can read about it.

Another reason is more problematic: the twinned narratives in the West of exploration and conquest.  A lot of people perpetuate these, assuming that all relationships with other species will be based on exploitation, violence and assimilation, or write about white Westerners heroically fighting back against colonial aliens, or don’t even realise that exploration and conquest are almost always synonymous (or, even, that they’re bad).  Sometimes these stories are more nuanced.  Sometimes people envisage futures in which better relationships are built.

3. I like the fact that the stories are reprints, it feels apt for an Alien anthology that you picked works belonging to different worlds/books/magazines. Was it a difficult process to narrow down the pieces? 

It was a really fun process!  I sought out stories in different ways: some I found by going “I like this author’s work, I wonder if they’ve written about aliens!” and a lot of the time they had; some I got via recommendations from friends (special thanks to Bogi Takács, Niall Harrison, Aliette de Bodard and Jetse de Vries); some I received in my inbox when I asked for submissions.  Then I had to assemble stories that took a wide variety of approaches to the theme, which meant losing some from my longlist if they were a bit too similar.  Then: an anthology!  It was a bit more fiddly than that, but that’s the gist of it.

4. Did other people try to interfere with your choices, and tell you that so-and-so has to be featured in it? I don’t think I’ve ever come across an anthology review that didn’t complain about someone being left out! 

My publisher, Sean Wallace, mostly let me pick what I wanted.  He gave me some good ideas and feedback on bigger name authors (my reading tastes lean towards people who are not — yet — famous) and suggested that it’s not a good idea to reprint too many stories from the same place (it turns out that Clarkesworld Magazine publishes a lot of great stuff!), but he didn’t insist that I include anything I disliked and he didn’t make me pull something I loved.  No one tried to suggest that I must include a certain author or story while I was compiling the anthology.  As for what readers think, well, we’ll see!

5. You’re a writer in your own right, are you finding editing compatible with your writing, and even beneficial in some sense?

I find them quite separate but complementary: they both allow me to engage with the things I love in SF and the things I find frustrating.  With my own fiction, I can write about the people who are not always centred — or even seen — in many SF narratives.  With my editing, I can show readers the stories I’ve found that are doing this.  Other than that, there’s not a lot of overlap.

6. If you could create an anthology now, with limitless funds and a free rein, what would you like it to be on, and who would you want featured in it?

Ooh. I would love to edit an anthology of original science fiction stories about gender in the future, written by authors of all genders from many cultural backgrounds.  One of my biggest frustrations with science fiction is that I’ll be reading a story set in the far future — but everyone’s cisgendered (and, often, in a heterosexual monogamous relationship with womb-born children, despite technology levels that would allow people to skip the discomfort and dangers of childbearing if they chose).  The binary gender system is non-existent right now: people are transgendered, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-gendered; many cultures have gender systems with non-binary identities.  This has been the case for a very long time and it will continue to be the case in the future — but where are these people?  Where are the future cultures that normalise non-binary genders?  I want to edit an anthology of these stories so that I can read them — and then share them with other people like me who want to see ourselves in possible futures.

7. What’s next?

First of all I need to finish my MA in Ancient History.  Then I get to spend the autumn reading science fiction stories: I’m editing The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, which will be out in late 2014, and I’m already excited about the few stories I’ve read and want to include.  I can’t wait to start assembling it in its entirety.  I’ll also spend plenty of time on my own short stories and longer projects

You can find out more about Alex Dally MacFarlane’s projects here!