Butner’s debut collection, The Adventurists (Small Beer, Feb.), explores complex futures and painful pasts.
The collection circles change and the things that can never quite be recaptured. What draws you to this theme?
Well, that’s tied to talking about the past in general. One of the first words I think of is nostalgia, which is a hot-button word for a lot of people. It means something terrible to a lot of people. But one of my watch-phrases is: honor complexity. I think we could look at the United States—especially in the past four years because of a certain administration—and see there’s all kinds of toxic nostalgia for a time that never really existed to begin with. But I’m also interested in things like historic preservation. Change is inevitable, as Octavia Butler would say. But to the extent that you can control it, I think it’s important to think about what are we losing and what are we gaining with each change. William Gibson has this phrase: “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” A while back, I thought of my own corollary to that, which is: the past is always with us, it’s just not evenly distributed. In a lot of the stories, suddenly the past is with us in a very literal way.
Several pieces feature the decay of idealized sci-fi futures. Tell me about your relationship with genre tropes.
As a person who’s operating in the genre but on the literary end, I think a lot about standard tropes, where they can go, and where they can interface with things completely differently. So with “The Ornithopter,” for example—I live near what they call the Research Triangle Park, which is this huge, landscaped campus for these tech companies. And they have these shiny, white buildings, glass and steel and concrete. And then when they’re not kept up, they get covered in ivy and the wildlife moves in. So I thought, “Okay, here’s this building that really is like a starship, plunked down in the middle of the woods. And what happens if right outside the starship, instead of space, it’s horror tropes and weird people from folktales and things like that?” That just seemed like an interesting juxtaposition.
What should readers know going into this collection?
I think we write the kind of stories that we like to read. I hope that there are people out there who like to read this kind of story. But to me it’s definitely like: you will not be hit over the head with anything in any of these stories, necessarily. A thing my best friend Christopher Rowe and I talk about quite a lot is iceberg farming, or iceberg engineering. You see what’s above the waterline, and—there’s a whole bunch, most of it’s below the waterline. It has weight, and it has effect on the world, but you can’t see it. So to me, that’s what I’m trying to do, is be the effective creator of the iceberg, and make the exact right iceberg that needs to be made.