I recently had the double pleasure of meeting Diana Peterfreund and then reading her terrific novel For Darkness Shows the Stars. From the sheer poetry of that line, I could tell I would be in good hands reading it and I was. The novel is a cool adaptation of Jane Austen's last novel Persuasion. You certainly don't have to have read or know a thing about the original story, but if you're familiar with Persuasion, then For Darkness Shows the Stars is a fun find-the-hidden-picture game, you'll come across the similarities and the parallels with delight. From names to certain key plot turning points, to the general feeling of class judgement, Austen's fingerprints are all over the book.
When I finished FDSTS, I had that great feeling of wishing I could sit down with the author and ask her a bunch of questions about the book. And lucky me, I was able to do that. And lucky you, here are Diana's awesome answers.
TS: I’m always intrigued by writers who take on the classics and completely remake them. It’s a chicken and the egg question, do you start with the original version and figure out how to remake it in a new and unexpected way, or do you start with the world building and then think “oi, this would be an awesome place to play out some Jane Austen”?
DF: In this case, it was the former. I'd had "a retelling of Persuasion" in my idea file for years. I love retellings in general, and I love Jane Austen retellings like Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary, but I'd never seen one of Persuasion, my favorite. "Post-apocalyptic" is another favorite genre on my mental "to do" list. One day, they collided (and quite the tongue-twister they made, too). From there it was very much a matter of figuring out what caused the apocalypse and how to get from that to the class issues I wanted to talk about. (Fun fact: in one discarded concept, it was the upper class who were the technically savvy, generically modified ones.)
For Across a Star-Swept Sea, the companion novel, it was the opposite. I had written For Darkness Shows the Stars as a standalone and I knew another Austen was not where my heart lay. One of the characters in For Darkness, Andromeda, spends a lot of time talking about revolution, which got me thinking about what if there was a place who responded to the Reduction in a different way? And then I thought about revolution stories I knew, and how the Reduction, being a brain injury was actually a metaphor for "losing your head." Another longtime resident of the idea file was "a gender-flipped Scarlet Pimpernel" and I realized I'd finally found the premise to make it work.
TS: One of my favorite aspects of the FDSTS is the world it's set in. Sure, it's the mad future where humans have mucked it all up since genetic modification of food and people has poisoned the world, but since that took place in the distant past, generations ago, the violence and chaos of it all have faded. What's left is an old-fashioned world, one which Jane Austen herself would have recognized: agrarian, pious (perhaps a touch sanctimonious) with a rigid class hierarchy and yet for all that, oddly egalitarian to the sexes in the ruling Luddite community. What inspired this old fashioned, yet futuristic world? Would you want to live there?
DF: Thank you! Back in 2004, I visited New Zealand for several months. It's such a gorgeous, verdant land, and also kind of a contradiction in itself. Off in the middle of nowhere, filled with species that can't be found anywhere else on Earth. I once saw a penguin sunning itself under a prehistoric palm tree--that's how "odd" it is there. It's a very young, very small country with an incredibly rich history and a unique melting pot of cultures. It's a highly agrarian society which is very English in some ways, yet there are these cities which a super modern and filled with immigrants (fun fact: Wellington has one of the highest rate of interracial marriages per capita in the world), and also the small but highly influential population of Maori who are very much trying to preserve their native culture among this onslaught. Who wouldn't want to set their stories there?
From a practical perspective, I needed a place so distant that it made sense that they could be cut off from the rest of the world, and New Zealand is located quite literally at the end of the Earth. (It's the jumping off point for all Antarctic expeditions.) And it's rich in settings I wanted for my story, like volcanoes and geothermal pools and caves filled with glow worms.
I like that you bring up the sexually egalitarian nature of the Luddite society. That was something I consciously included. There is less of a focus on the sexism of Austen's society in Persuasion than there is in other Austens -- no one is afraid of being impoverished due to inheritance laws like in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. There is no "ruination" plot like in those books or Mansfield Park. Anne Elliot had a very firm place in society and clearly does not need to get married, as she's turned down two marriage proposals, one very promising, one established and prosperous, already.
People talk a lot about how Anne is "a spinster" but they seem to forget that she has an older sister who is the only one starting to feel pressure about being "on the shelf." I don't think Austen was much concerned with Anne's status, not like Charlotte Lucas or other older Austen characters who are feeling the need to wed. Unlike the Dashwoods or the Bennets, Anne would have a place and money were her father to suddenly die.
To me, this felt like an opportunity to talk about other things. There is no requirement that my world of the future be a very sexist one. It's messed up in so many other ways, who needs more? And I think it's very in keeping with the Luddite outlook -- race isn't what matters, gender isn't what matters, sexuality isn't what matters -- what matters is if you're a Luddite or not. The Reduction cut across all lines that may have existed in the past.
There are a lot of dystopian YA novels out right now that I've heard called "fertility stories" -- they are very focused on questions of female sexuality, of matchmaking and baby-making (MATCHED, DELIRIUM, DEFIANCE, BORN WICKED, to name a few). I've even written one (the short story "Foundlings.") And I've also written several series that focus very strongly on sexism and female sexuality. But I wanted the focus on this story to be more Oryx and Crake than A Handmaid's Tale, so to speak.
Would I want to live there? NO WAY. I would, however, like to live in New Pacifica, the setting of Across a Star-Swept Sea. Gorgeous, lush surroundings, cool technology, awesome dresses? Where do I sign up? Their reaction to the Reduction was very different, and they are in a much healthier place now. There are still problems to be solved (the southern island is having a bloody revolution, the northern one has problems of sexism). but I think those characters are on their way to fixing that stuff and then it'll be a technological paradise.
TS: Elliot North, the protagonist, is raised to believe that genetic modification is quite literally, the root of all evil. It's the cause of the great disaster they are all still recovering from. After years where all innovation and experiments were forbidden, society seems ready to move on again. The novel ends with Elliot North reconsidering her views on the matter. Where do you stand on the subject?
DF: Is that where it ends, though? The story starts with her watching the product of her own genetic modification being mown down in front of her eyes. I think Elliot North is a girl in denial, and the story is about first recognizing and then accepting that you may not believe what you've been taught to believe. The wheat Elliot is growing is her reconstitution of Norman Borlaugh's semi-dwarf wheat, which, together with other innovations, jumpstarted the Green Revolution in the mid twentieth century and is responsible for saving a billion people from starvation. There are studies that attempt to demonize this wheat, saying it's less nutritious and causes gluten intolerance and other ills, but I think that comes from a place of privilege. You don't knock less nutritious wheat when the alternative is starvation. And that's where Elliot is when she makes the incredibly difficult decision to flaunt the beliefs of her ancestors and secretly plant it. Its genetic modification or death.
I am a fan of technological advances, including genetic modification, but I'm also aware of the dangers inherent in such things. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Genetic modification has been happening since the invention of agriculture -- we just have far more advanced ways to do it now. I think a lot of the push back against so-called "Frankenfoods" is not so much against the foods, but about the draconian and damaging policies of companies like Monsanto who are developing them with an interest only toward profit at any cost, without regard for best farming practices or safety, either for the farmer or for the consumer. When it comes to human engineering, I'm pro developments that will lead to the prevention and curing of disease, and anti eugenics, but I'm also acutely aware of how murky those definitions can get, and I think these are going to be the big questions of the century.
And I don't think that's where it'll end. In Across a Star-Swept Sea, you meet a very technologically advanced society that has embraced genetic engineering in order to help them terraform the island they call home. They have modified plants and animals, they have biocomputers, they even have temporary genetic modifications they use like party drugs. And you can see scientists in this world -- like the hero, Justen Helo -- calling for reserve, for checks and balances, for safety restrictions. There are pluses and minuses and I think the focus should be on making sure nothing we do causes a disaster like the Reduction, or is used for evil as the Galateans are using the Reduction drug in the revolution.
You'd better shut me up, or I'll talk about genetic engineering all day. I did a ton of research for these books, and it seeps out whenever I'm not looking.
TS: Now I'm seriously intruiged with your next novel. Thanks, Diana!
FDSTS's companion novel, Across a Star Swept Sea, will come out Oct 15. I cannot wait to read it!