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What the future leaves behind
Interview with speculative fiction novelist Grace Chan
This week I’m excited to share with you an interview with Australian writer Grace Chan. I read her stunning, futuristic, award-winning novel Every Version of You earlier this year at the recommendation of writer Omar Sakr. The book grabs you and won’t let you go. Grace and I talked about language, speculative fiction, the metaverse, migration and much more. You can find our conversation below.
Autumn Writing Retreat in Puglia, Italy
There are still places in the autumn writing retreat in Puglia starting on 30 October! I’m excited to meet and work with everyone attending.
This is for you if you:
Struggle writing full dramatic scenes with realistic & engaging dialogue
Have difficulty creating complex characters - do the characters all seem the same in the story?
Have been working on a piece of writing but are feeling a bit stuck lately and don't know what to do
Want to experience an authentic side of Italy
What you’ll come away with:
Confidence to write great characters, scenes & dialogue using techniques from film, theatre and established authors
Being part of a community of writers who support each other
One-of-a-kind experience staying in a 900-year-old monastery converted into a luxury hotel in an easily accessible part of Italy, though still off the radar for most tourists
The retreat is heavy on interactivity (no didactic lectures!), exercises and fun. There’s plenty of free time to rest, recharge, explore, and, of course, eat!
If you have any questions or if you want to have a session to discuss anything, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click the button below for more info:
Meet Grace Chan
Grace Chan (gracechanwrites.com) is an award-winning speculative fiction writer and doctor. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Every Version of You, is about staying in love after mind-uploading into virtual reality. Her short fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Going Down Swinging, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways, and many other places.
About Every Version of You:
In late twenty-first century Australia, Tao-Yi and her partner Navin spend most of their time inside an immersive, consumerist virtual reality called Gaia. They log on, go to work, socialise, and even eat in this digital utopia. Meanwhile their aging bodies lie suspended in pods inside cramped apartments.
Across the city, in the abandoned real world, Tao-Yi’s mother remains stubbornly offline, dwindling away between hospital visits and memories of her earlier life in Malaysia.
When a new technology is developed to permanently upload a human brain to Gaia, Tao-Yi must decide what is most important: a digital future, or an authentic past.
Introduction & Languages:
Lloyd Miner (LM): You’re a psychiatrist and a writer. Are you a practising psychiatrist? How does it influence your writing?
Grace Chan (Grace): Yes, I completed a medical degree in 2012 and finished my psychiatry training in 2021. I currently practise part-time in clinical psychiatry. My day job definitely has a close interplay with my writing. Both interests spring from a fascination with how we construct our minds and our selves, and the role of narrative and memory.
Many of my stories explore how hypothetical advances in technology, particularly medical technology, might force us to confront what it means to be human. In Every Version of You, the technology to upload a human mind into the metaverse raises questions about the role of the body and the physical environment. In my short story Father’s House, I explore identity reconstruction being used to make decisions about euthanasia. In my novelette Jigsaw Children, I write about a generation of children spliced together from genetic material from multiple parents. So, my medical background certainly inspires and informs my creativity!
(LM): You also write gaming narratives, correct? How is it working in various genres and media?
(Grace): I’ve only dipped my toes into gaming narratives. I contributed a Magic: the Gathering story for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. The story is titled The Epoch Engine and it introduces the character of Kotori, a young moonfolk pilot who forges a bond with a spirit housed inside a mech. It was a lot of fun to be involved in this project. I loved immersing myself in the lore and art of Kamigawa as I worked on the story. It was such an honour to contribute to the lore of a worldwide phenomenon with an enormous fan base.
I’m very open to working in different genres and media. I think it prompts me to think outside the box and use my tools in different ways, making me better at my craft.
(LM): How many languages do you speak? What’s one word or phrase in English that you love that doesn’t translate? And vice-versa?
(Grace): My first language as a child was Cantonese, but English took over once I started school. Nowadays, I speak and think almost completely in English, although I have a basic grasp of Chinese Cantonese and Mandarin. I also studied Latin in high school and adored the grammar and the deduction of it.
That’s such an interesting question, and not one I’ve had the opportunity to ponder in depth! Cantonese is inextricably linked to my childhood, so many words and phrases are highly emotive and nostalgic. (I wrote a little love letter/letter seeking forgiveness to Cantonese a couple of years ago.) It’s interesting how the subjective meaning of words in the realm of ‘love’ and ‘like’ differ between English and Cantonese. For example, ‘love’ is used very loosely in English, but only reserved for people you really love in Cantonese. You’d never say you love cheese! In English, there are love-adjacent words like ‘cherish’ and ‘adore’. I don’t know the words for those in Cantonese, but that probably just reflects my limited grasp of the language.
Setting & worldbuilding:
(LM): Every Version of You takes place in Melbourne, Australia, in the 2080s after a nuclear event. Climate mitigation has failed, biodiversity is almost completely gone. “Earth,” as the novel says, “is spent.” The characters also interact with Gaia, a metaverse-like environment. In the novel, you adeptly create both a “real” world and a digital one through which the characters pass back and forth How does the setting impact the characters?
(Grace): In Every Version of You, people spend most of their waking hours in Gaia, working, eating, and socialising in this shiny and alluring virtual world. Their bodies remain nourished in pods while their minds are hooked up to Gaia. There is a removal from the body and from the physical environment–a bypassing–allowing them to forget about the destruction that humanity has wreaked on Earth. Gaia is designed by a corporation, and life in Gaia is shaped by individualism, consumption, self-optimisation, and pleasure-seeking.
Each character is affected by Gaia in different ways. Tao-Yi finds her virtual body and the virtual world unsettling. She savours the tangible and relational aspects of her dwindling physical life–her physical connection with Navin, the textures of old-world food, her complicated relationship with her mother and her home country. She feels alienated by the rapid advances in technology.
Navin, on the other hand, feels at ease in Gaia. He enjoys the freedom of a digital mind and body, especially freedom from chronic pain. He’s excited by the possibilities that Gaia offers to us as a society.
(LM): How did you go about creating both worlds? What are the dangers of our increasing focus on working and living in a digital world?
(Grace): I needed to craft the world in such a way that it would be believable for people to choose to upload their minds, to leave Earth entirely for a pleasurable digital afterlife. When I was creating Gaia, I drew a lot on my own experiences of using technology as a teenager and young person, and of course how we interact with technology today–the way it offers appealing spaces for us to reinvent and explore ourselves and interact with others in exciting new ways; its addictive potential; how it infiltrates every corner of our daily lives; how we hand personal data over to algorithms and then let them tell us what to choose and do. I extrapolated from the state-of-play today, where we have technological advancement in the hands of mega-corporations, and imagined how our lives might be gradually subsumed into the metaverse.
(LM): Conversely, what do you see as some of the benefits of this digital-only world?
(Grace): I believe that digital spaces can be beneficial if designed with thought and care. Privacy, control, bias, and the nature of interactions in these spaces are all important considerations. Digital spaces allow us to explore aspects of ourselves and connect with people that we may not have the opportunity to do so in our day-to-day lives; digital technologies can also improve efficiency and resource distribution. I wouldn’t want to live in a digital-only world, though.
(LM): The future in the novel is Dickensian and dystopian. Inequality has worsened; humanity has failed to reckon with the climate crisis. The poorest humans unable to afford the technology that protects them from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Humans tend to operate under the fallacy that the future will be always better, and that all problems can be solved by technology. What we see in the novel is that certain problems for certain people have been solved. Can you elaborate more on this theme and how you see it?
(Grace): I remember sitting in a seminar years ago when an older white man put his hand up during the Q&A and actually said, “I don’t really see why there’s so much fuss about climate change. If the sea levels rise, can’t we all just move to higher ground?” I think this incredibly ignorant question is demonstrative of the issues in our society today: these outwardly educated people, who come from a place of privilege and wealth but do not do the work to understand experiences outside their own narrow sphere, are the ones who hold power. Individuals are driven by self-interest and fear; our economic systems incentivise profit and wealth accumulation.
In my book, the virtual world of Gaia is a utopia for the select few who hold power in this technocratic world. Those who get in first snap up virtual assets and virtual real estate. The economic inequalities of the old world are replicated. I don’t think inequalities can be mitigated without awareness and coordinated effort.
(LM): Tao-Yi, the main character, was born in Malaysia and immigrated as a child to Australia with her mother. Navin, her partner, is also an immigrant to Australia. He moved there as an adult to be with Tao-Yi. Tao-Yi believes that uploading to Gaia will make Navin:
even more of a global citizen…[he’s] never seen himself as a foreigner, or felt the foreignness in his body, bone-deep the way she has. He’s always seemed comfortable with his mixed-race and diasporic identity, regarded himself as untethered to any specific history or practice. He came from an academic family, grew up as an American and never doubted that education and a place in the Western world were his rights.
Navin is far more open to living completely in the digital world, Tao-Yi much less so. I wonder if his adaptability, his lack of being anchored to a place (along with his health issues), makes it easier for him to consider uploading to Gaia?
(Grace): Yes, Navin finds it much easier to move across cultures and contexts, and doesn’t feel the same sense of being adrift as Tao-Yi. He is quite comfortable having multiple homes. I wanted to portray a diversity of diasporic experiences–I think that the melancholic “outsider” diaspora kid is the one typically portrayed in literature (and it’s an important representation), but I also wanted to show that many diaspora kids don’t struggle with feelings of unbelonging. Some identify strongly with their new homes; some are comfortable in their in-betweenness.
(LM): For Tao-Yi it’s more complicated, especially since her mother still maintains the traditions of her home country. How do you see the complicated relationship Tao-Yi has with Malaysia and Australia?
(Grace): Tao-Yi migrated at an interesting age–twelve years old, just on the cusp of adolescence, a period when you’re about to embark on a dedicated quest to become your own person. To be uprooted from your home country and dropped into a new culture has an impact on your identity. Tao-Yi has never felt completely at home in Australia. She’s always felt that she has to earn her belonging, for example by proving her worth to society through her work. At the same time, her relationship to Malaysia is with an imaginary home. The Malaysia of her childhood doesn’t exist anymore, as she finds when they visit later, and present-day Malaysia doesn’t have the same familiarity. She’s untethered–and unlike Navin, you do sense that she’s searching for something to anchor herself.
Genre & Literary influences
(LM): Talk a bit about speculative fiction. What about the genre appeals to you?
(Grace): My brain just bends naturally into the speculative. I have loved reading science fiction and fantasy since I was a child, and most of the ideas that fascinate me as a writer are speculative ones. I find it interesting to explore imaginary technology and the consequences at a personal, intimate, relational, and sociological level. Speculative fiction employs metaphor and narrative so powerfully to comment on the real world–history, present, and future. Personally, I find the genre also brims with childhood wonder and delight–and that’s something I’m constantly trying to return to in my writing practice.
(LM): Who are some of your literary influences? I see a lot in common with Omar al Akkad’s American War, a novel about the climate crisis and how it drives the US into a second Civil War; the book also rhymes with Octavia Butler’s work and has the philosophical and moral reckonings of Ted Chiang.
(Grace): I’m honoured by the comparisons to Butler and Chiang. I haven’t read American War, but I’ll have to add it to my reading list. I’m inspired by Ursula K Le Guin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, and many others.
(LM): Tell us a bit about your writing process. Does it differ by genre or medium?
(Grace): I juggle a fair few commitments in my day-to-day life, so my writing practice needs to be flexible. I try to set aside a few hours for writing (or writing-adjacent tasks) a couple of times per week. Usually I just write in my study, surrounded by books and notebooks and looking out at our garden. Sometimes, I’ll duck out to a cafe or library.
With short stories, I’ll generally do a brief outline with the main beats and then dive right into drafting in a Word doc. I like to know what I’m aiming for, what I’m trying to do with the story, and then trust the process–I know I’ll discover more as I go.
With Every Version of You, I started writing that as a short story, but as I developed it over multiple drafts into a novel, I moved into Scrivener, which I found quite good for collating research and world-building as well as for rearranging big chunks of text.
I liked working on short stories in between novel drafts and novel edits–it was a great change of pace and helped me to feel like I was getting something done. I also find short stories are a fantastic way to improve my craft and experiment with voice.
You can find Every Version of You wherever you buy books from and you can follow Grace on Substack