Eureka moments, robo-toddlers and down-and-dirty realism. Interview with science fiction writer Ren Warom — Ada Lovelace Conversations #6
Ren Warom mashes together cyberpunk with weird fiction in her two novels, Escapology and, most recently, Virology. She writes with frenetic pacing and inventive language to create impressively gritty fiction.
ANNE: There’s chaos in both the real and virtual worlds in your novels, and all your characters struggle for survival. Can you set the scene, Ren, about the disasters that have befallen the world in these novels? How did the world become such a mess?
REN: The disaster was anthropogenic in nature (in a nod to the immediate concerns of anthropogenic climate change). Essentially, those in power broke the world to tear society up into manageable pieces, the better to control it. So the privations, the systems of control, the gangs and cartels, the unprecedented levels of those suffering outside or even within the system, is a result of the fracturing of the world and its subsequent ownership by corporations who see people only as assets — to be used as necessary for the accumulation of profit.
This is something I see reflected in the world as it is now. People as commodities. Entire systems reliant upon that value structure. And that structure has eked its way into societal mores, becoming deeply embedded — if your ambitions take you outside of what is perceived as immediately valuable to the system there is a danger that your choices will be attacked, derided or ridiculed. All worth is measured in monetary value, there is no inherent worth in humanity anymore, in life, in the diversity of life, its exuberant variety. That’s a dangerous place to be. That’s how (in the simplest, most reductive terms) we end up with Trump and Tories and Brexit, and the erosion of all our freedoms.
ANNE: Yes, you present a extrapolation of the present day that’s frightening — regarding climate and politics — and your subject matter is well suited to a cyberpunk style. So I’m wondering what led you to write cyberpunk, as opposed to a more conventional dystopia or a survival-after-apocalypse story? Did you read earlier cyberpunk novels and feel it really matched the way you’d like to write?
REN: Pure accident led me to cyberpunk. I certainly didn’t start with it as my go-to sub-genre, and it isn’t where I’m writing at this moment. My fundamental interest is in fracturing and in perception — how we break, what those breakages look like as they mend or fail to mend, how we build ourselves from the remnants, and how we perceive the world, how it aligns itself to be perceived, how we are told to perceive it. I love any book that engages in a conversation about the notions of what is real versus what is perceived and for the sort of exaggerated down-and-dirty realism epitomized by the Beats (that’s the origin of the punk in my cyberpunks), especially if it’s married up with weirdness or absurdity.
Basically, if a book is weird or strange or looks at the world through a distorting prism, be it subtle or profound, then I’m reading it. I also adore being thrown in at the deep end. Give me a book that presents a puzzle and I’m in heaven.
In as much as my irritating ADD allows it, I have an abiding interest in counter-cultures (including punk). Anything that emerges in opposition to the status quo. Seeks to undo systems, to stand against uniformity or other such attempts to oppress or subdue individuality and critical thinking, and upends notions of commodification and value culture. Anything that questions, that refuses to be silenced, that is not satisfied with standard answers, vox pops, or rhetoric. Anything that pushes creative boundaries as an act of defiance, or protest, or liberation.
ANNE: So tell me about your early writing.
REN: When I first started writing in earnest at fifteen, I wanted to write like Anne McCaffrey, or David Eddings, or P.G. Wodehouse (seriously, I wrote the first few acts of a play called The Absconding of Archie, inspired in part by Victor Victoria, my favourite Julie Andrews movie, but mostly by Wodehouse’s Golf books and Jeeves and Wooster). Then I discovered Samuel Delany, and William Burroughs, and Kathe Koja, and Georges Bataille and film makers like Lynch and Cronenberg. Something about the tone, the language, the feel of those books and films felt like coming home, like a revelation — a total ‘ah’ or ‘eureka’ moment. I never felt that with cyberpunk, though I love to read it and have had moments of feeling like it’s speaking to my experience of the world and my understanding of it very profoundly.
So when I’m writing now, the only thing I’m doing is trying in vain to express the parts of me which recognised themselves in those works that gave me my eureka moment. As yet I imagine I’m failing, but that’s why we continue right? It’s the never ending quest for the actualisation of a feeling, for the day you read your own work and have that eureka moment.
ANNE: This is something I’ve discussed with Nina Allan in an earlier conversation, the idea of a writing quest. When we look back on any writer who has enjoyed a long career, we can pick out themes or quests that she returns to time and again. Sometimes these quests might arise from personal life experience, sometimes from an enduring passion for a particular subject, or from a question that’s constantly niggling. I’m now curious about your relationship with STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics. Did you connect with any of these during your school days, develop a passion for any of them, or have you always aimed towards literature and writing?
REN: Oh I love it described as a quest, yes. I think so many authors use writing as a means of deprogramming the world, of unpicking the conundrums of being human and of humanity — a form of therapy and activism (in terms of expressing that which we would see changed). I’m a particular fan of the Beats and Burroughs, and I always come back to that idea of him ‘writing himself human’. That notion resonates very deeply with me. I feel a lot of the time I’m doing something remarkably similar (with far less facility). I think my quest, as my resonance with Burroughs might suggest, is more of a quest arising from personal experiences that align with, or gave rise to, particular passions.
My interests in tech range from biotechnology to AI; I’m fascinated by the possibilities, by the process of technological evolution. We’re like robo-toddlers, free-running before we can walk — we barely understand the everyday tech we use, let alone the extraordinary advances currently waiting to unleash upon us. And whilst the spread of technology is extraordinary (they have excellent wifi on Easter Island apparently), there is also a clear class divide, and tech will only exacerbate that — advances will leave a shocking number of people behind. That disparity is where my cyberpunk lives. Between the ones left behind, and the outsiders who’ll retrofit old tech to their own designs and use it to fight their disenfranchisement. I’m all about fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised.
As to STEM subjects at school, my experience was… different. My teachers were (on the whole) pretty good, but in terms of access things were rather dire. I say that with hindsight though. At the time it was more aggravating than anything else because I didn’t see the wider context of the lack of access, or the real harm it could do to my choices.
I attended two of the worst comprehensive schools in Essex (due to a house move halfway through my secondary years). In the first, we learned science as one big lump of mostly biology. That made it awkward when transitioning to a school that taught the science subjects separately. Neither comprehensive school succeeded in their duty to really encourage pupils to pursue science. We were rarely engaged enough to care. Lessons could be very disruptive.
ANNE: Within this classroom chaos did you detect any gender bias? Was there an expectation that you’d follow a creative rather than a STEM route?
REN: In technology we were all taught the same subjects, there was no segregation. No ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ subjects. I’m grateful for that. But again, no encouragement to take it further. Not even in maths. I aced a mock exam paper at thirteen when I started my second comp and it condemned me to top set. I say ‘condemned’ because my teacher was genuinely awful. He made me hate maths. No one in that class loved maths because of him. Teachers make all the difference.
It’s always been the creative route for me anyway. No question. I’ve been writing forever. I think it’s because I learnt to read early and found solace in books. As a child (like so many of us it seems), I lived in my head (I still do). So I was a dreamer, but I wasn’t unaware of the world — I was a little too aware of it all, and it gave me a lot of anxiety, so I had to find an escape from it. Books, cartoons, TV, films, my imagination: they were all places I could go to be safe. To be in control. That mattered very much then. It matters less now, but books and films etc are still my go-to happy/safe place.
ANNE: That starts me pondering about my own go-to happy place! I guess mine involves travelling to new places, when I’m on the road without a fixed destination. I love that feeling. Or cycling along country lanes. That sense of getting away!
You mentioned earlier about your ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder, I assume. Does that disorder make it difficult for you to focus on a single big project, like a novel. Or does it actually help?
REN: That’s a wonderful happy place! And travel is so important, I think. You realise that the world is huge and diverse and rather extraordinarily beautiful but also basically the same everywhere — people are just people, and we all want similar things. I feel the same way when I read letters written hundreds of years ago, that sense of people always being the same. I find it reassuring somehow. It helps me connect when I feel stranded outside of humanity. I read this marvellous tweet about someone’s favourite piece of cuneiform, written by a Priestess in Ur for her younger brother; a passive aggressive note complaining about how he never contributes for holiday groceries. Isn’t it marvellous? How thoroughly normal.
It is indeed attention deficit disorder. I can find it very difficult to get going some days, because my thoughts are so fast they blur into white noise. Once I get started though, I tend to hyper focus. That in itself can be problematic, as it means I lose track of time and I can get too caught up in perfecting something best left alone (I am a *complete* edit nerd, I can tinker with words forever). Having contracted work has helped so much, because it’s a huge incentive to find methods of self-discipline. It also taught me that I can write even when my brain feels like it can’t focus (that was a revelation!). I’m a work in progress still, but I am at least progressing. That’s all I can ask for.
ANNE: And finally, Ren, what’s happening next for you?
REN: Next? I’m currently writing two books, one for self-pub, one to sub trad. The self-pub will be under a pseudonym as it’s an m/m romance (contemporary, lots and lots of fun). I’m not worried about people knowing I write m/m, the pseudonym is purely to keep my brands distinct (I laughed when I wrote the word ‘brands’. I have no brand, but I don’t want to confound readers of my sci-fi etc or vice versa). The one for trad sub is an industrial fantasy, and I am *loving* writing it. I forgot how much I enjoy building fantasy worlds. I have no idea if it’ll get picked up in the least, I’m nowhere near established enough, and I think even established authors worry they’ll never pick up another contract so… I hope it finds a home. In the meantime, I’m enjoying getting to know my characters and giving them hell. I’m also enjoying that heady feeling of having something to write. Finishing projects always comes with the fear that you might never manage it again, so it’s absolutely amazing to be in the thick of it!
ANNE: Thank you so much, Ren, for this chat, and good luck with the new writing projects!
Ada Lovelace Conversations Links
The Ada Lovelace Conversations are a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), profiling women writers of Science Fiction and beyond.
Our interviewer in residence is science fiction writer and science journalist, Anne Charnock: